Review: Call of Duty: Vanguard is What It Is and That’s Totally Fine

Note: Activision Blizzard has been in the news a lot for executives, including CEO Bobby Kotick, fostering a toxic workplace with widespread sexual harassment and mistreatment of its employees. It’s currently under multiple lawsuits and calls for his resignation. I acknowledge this project and others were made under these difficult circumstances and believe its management team should be held accountable. I don’t think this should stop people, including myself, from writing critically about the work of its development teams. Therefore, this is my full review.

It’s difficult for individual titles to stand out within an annual franchise. Consistency is really the name of the game, both in gameplay and structure. Call of Duty: Vanguard represents a continuation of great mechanics, rapid-fire intensity and blockbuster aesthetic from predecessors while suffering in areas especially within a bare-bones Zombies offering, slight imbalances in multiplayer weaponry and minimal integration with standalone battle royale mode Warzone.

The game is similar, familiar and doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel. Which can be satisfying. This also means it’s not anything more than solid when taken as a whole.

As a military first-person shooter, it follows a similar cadence as many before featuring three distinct play options in Campaign, Multiplayer and Zombies. This year’s setting is the backdrop of World War II, showcasing characters, locales plus weapons from the era often sacrificing realism for functionality. It’s a video game after all, so some level of disbelief suspension is always in order.

Because of the historical setting, it’s naturally reminiscent of 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII. Which I found to be pretty good. Yet its mechanics are much more linked to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) which I consider in the highest regard within the mainline series and the genre in general. That means the pure feel, including movement capabilities, are top-notch. It achieves the series staple of smooth, seamless action.

The general approach here for both Campaign and Multiplayer, which were handled by Sledgehammer Games, is bouncing across different engagements during one of the world’s most massive wars. There’s fights everywhere from the Eastern and Western fronts, Northern Africa and Pacific regions. Zombies was instead made by Call of Duty: Black Ops creators Treyarch Studios and focuses on a tiny area in Stalingrad, a boring iteration in what’s the game’s most disappointing part.

Campaign has the highest of Vanguard’s highs, a playable blockbuster war flick following a team of specialized soldiers while learning about their pasts. From dazzling technical prowess to improved character writing and intense sequences, it’s a pretty thrilling five to six hour experience. Even stealth sections are worthy of praise.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in Multiplayer, the meat and potatoes of modern day Call of Duty. Even if progression feels uneven, unlocks take a lot of time and gun balancing is skewed from the start. Map diversity, general customization and play-style building is where it shines. That’s a lot of competitive content at launch, including at least a couple new modes plus rotating playlists that add flavor to the mix.

Other areas either plainly aren’t ready or don’t feel fully baked, notably Zombies and Warzone integration.

Zombies is the weakest bit, even if it’s the best place for mindless experience grinding without having to compete. More of a run-based approach. Which could work, it’s just way too basic and monotonous. Doesn’t feel fully baked at launch. December update.

The most relevant question asked of any virtual shooter is: how does it feel to play? Without that, it’s nothing.

I’m a firm believer that Call of Duty features best-in-class gun feel, movement capability, audio feedback and time-to-kill tweaking. While in a historical setting, Vanguard retains all of these and it just feels natural to play for first-person aficionados. Hit feedback is critical. I lean towards shorter time-to-kill games, where bullets feel stronger and engagements are about reaction and precision. This year’s experience continues modern staples like tactical sprint, sliding and mounting on different parts of the environment, providing a sleek and powerful combination of abilities that translate especially well to Multiplayer matches.

The game is similar, familiar and doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel. Which can be satisfying. This also means it’s not anything more than solid when taken as a whole.

I always begin my annual Call of Duty passage with Campaign, so I’ll start there. While not the most impactful or innovative story, its intensity is matched only by its big budget feel during firefights across various theatres of the 1940s.

At first it appears a pretty standard setup when it comes to military stories: A group of specialized soldiers called Task Force One bands together during World War II to uncover a secret plot within the Nazi war machine. It ends up being more an interactive Tarantino flick told out of order because, within this framework, it’s actually a character piece delving into the past of its personalities before pushing forward into their present day.

Arthur Kingsley, a Cameroonian Brit well-educated in language and film, commands the unit with a deft touch and glowing charisma. Polina Petrova is a Russian-born sniper with a quick tongue and even faster trigger finger, she has a score to settle with her invaders. Pilot and New York native Wade Jackson joined the team after surviving the Pacific while Lucas Riggs is an Australian explosives expert. And general goofball. British Sergeant Richard Webb rounds out the cast, though is the only individual the player doesn’t control at some point.

In the opening mission, the team executes a high stakes train robbery where it learns of one of The Third Reich’s mysterious internal plans called Project Phoenix. Unfortunately, they are also captured by ambitious Nazi scumbag Hermann Freisinger and thrown into a high-security prison to be interrogated by Jannick Richter, acted incredibly well by Dominic Monaghan. It’s via these sessions that the game tells each character’s tale, leading to most of the game’s missions as flashbacks.

Each character has different abilities within these vignettes that change up the core gameplay. Petrova escapes her hometown of Stalingrad while leveraging her super fast stealth techniques and marksman aim. During The Rats of Tobruk, Riggs escorts a splinter unit to gain intelligence from a desert Nazi base while blowing up as many military vehicles as possible, even one that’s airborne, with an assorted inventory of grenades.

And during Operation Tonga, the player issues directives to a dedicated fire team as Kingsley, pointing out areas for cover fire or opportunities to hit high value targets, fighting during the infamous invasion of Normandy. Because what’s a World War II game without Normandy?

Sure, it’s a bit predictable. It’s still more effective bouncing between controllable characters rather than a single one, reminiscent of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with its multiple protagonists. And the focus on the most important parts of their history means there can be quieter moments with family and fellow squad members amidst the chaos of war.

As a massive publisher project, the Campaign is a technical showpiece that exists on the front-line of modern console capabilities. The developers at Sledgehammer games, which handled this mode plus Multiplayer, are showing off when it comes to movement animations, environmental design and audio prowess. The sound design is incredible, neatly capturing whizzing bullets and crunchy demolition.

There’s a distinct focus on environment, cover and destruction in Vanguard. While of course it’s a set of linear sequences, it offers flexibility in blasting through a wooden barricade or mounting a crumbling cement wall. While far from revolutionary, this sort of destructibility is a welcome touch.

My favorite mission trick later in the narrative is one where the camera switches perspective mid-mission as the playable character shifts within a broader conflict. It’s a superb effect and spreads out mechanics because of those bespoke abilities assigned to each teammate. Jackson’s time-slowing aiming in particular is the most satisfying of all.

Regrettably an earlier set of missions set in the skies above the Pacific Ocean then the Numa Numa Trail in Papua New Guinea mark lows in the action. First the player is tasked with flying a primitive fighter plane then dive-bombing ships. The controls just don’t translate well, and imaginary walls restrict the combat area so flying outside them causes mission failure. Right after there’s a jungle sequence along the trail where Jackson and his copilot meet the 93rd Infantry Division, a segregated unit for African-American soldiers. I appreciate the inclusion, and leader James “Booker” Washington acts as an inspiration, even if the mission itself is a somewhat monotonous trudge.

Back to the highs, Sledgehammer’s voice casting and motion capture techniques are on full display. Famed voice actress Laura Bailey steals the overall show as Petrova, while British actor Chiké Okonkwo’s Kingsley quite literally commands his every scene. The aforementioned Monaghan is incredible as a sniveling, over-matched Nazi investigator when facing off with each personality. Facial features are crisp and animations line up perfectly in another example of technical know-how from the Sledgehammer team.

It’s a mostly enjoyable five or six hours, feeling even longer than it is and boasting more highs than not. I would have liked one additional mission or a more climactic final sequence, yet have minimal complaints about its length as a war epic trying to showcase multiple fronts of the war and more intimate flashback anecdotes.

The main focus of development and ongoing support in the latest Call of Duty games, now operating each year alongside its persistent Warzone battle royale offering introduced back in 2020, is Multiplayer. Clearly.

Competitive play is where the franchise’s smooth, fast-paced mechanics really make their mark. Vanguard is no different, maybe a slight step behind the master class of Modern Warfare. It’s the most tangibly rewarding mode, with the usual setup of the best unlocks requiring a major time investment. It’s the series that revolutionized progression in first-person multiplayer, and still does it as well as any other by dangling that next reward after every round.

That progression, the forward momentum, it’s what Call of Duty perfected all those years ago. The numbers go up almost everywhere, after every match, between general level experience (XP), weapons getting more powerful via unlocks, Operator level and its ongoing battle pass. It’s part of why the franchise has been so successful and long-lasting, and why I keep coming back to it each time. Sure there are specific challenges and cosmetic awards for achieving them. But I love progression that can be earned in-game, and Call of Duty rewards people every step of the way for simply playing.

The core of Vanguard is a sampling of traditional modes like Team Deathmatch and Free-For-All, objective-based Domination, Hardpoint and Search and Destroy and many corresponding Hardcore renditions where radar is turned off plus bullets are more lethal. Team Deathmatch is naturally where most of the player base operates, as usual. It’s the bread-and-butter, the definition of consistency. Or perhaps redundancy, depending how one looks at it. When I’m not grinding out experience in smaller maps, I tend to gravitate towards certain objective types: the zone control of Hardpoint and especially Kill Confirmed where players collect dog tags of fallen foes and comrades.

This year’s title introduces a couple new modes, one that’s really an iteration of an existing template then another that’s unlike most others. Patrol is the former, where a capture area constantly moves around a map and rewards the team that holds it the longest. It’s cool enough, promoting more movement than Hardpoint while requiring the same team coordination.

Champion Hill is the more unique introduction in Vanguard. This is a round-robin style tournament in which eight small teams compete against one another with a limited set of lives in a fight for supremacy. It begins in a hub area with a buying round where teams of two or three can choose between weapons, perks, upgrades and even more lives. It then randomly selects a match-up of two teams and places them in one of four sub-areas on the broader map. Kills generate cash which can be used to add attachments or spent during additional buying rounds. Any team that runs out of lives is eliminated. It’s a snappy set of tactical skirmishes where things can go south quickly, and smart use of cash reserves is key. It’s intense and addictive, especially with friends on comms.

The big push in Multiplayer is creating a build that fits one’s play style. Weapons, attachments, grenades, field upgrades, perks, killstreaks, the cornucopia of completing one’s arsenal.

Weapon variety right now in Vanguard is mostly as expected, with a historical backdrop of course rather than any sort of modern military models. It’s a tricky task for Sledgehammer to operate within the World War II setting and create gameplay scenarios that entice players used to automatic weapons and accoutrements galore. So it ends up being a Frankenstein blend of period guns with unrealistic upgrades and capabilities, a sacrifice of realism for the sake of practicality which I believe is necessary.

There’s 38 weapons at launch across the typical primary categories of assault rifles, submachine or light machine guns and shotguns. Vanguard separates marksman rifles from snipers, the former being long range semi-automatics while the latter are mostly one-hit kills. Then the secondary options of pistols, melee and, my personal favorite, launchers. All of these archetypes aren’t just anticipated, they are purely essential by now.

Early in a multiplayer game’s life cycle, imbalances are unavoidable. That’s the case right now for at least one or two weapons especially within assault rifles and shotguns, while marksman and snipers seem underutilized. The STG44 is the very first assault rifle available to players and probably the best all around pick. There’s also the faster firing Automaton, lethal during closer engagements yet harder to control. The most fun, or broken, of all in Vanguard is the Combat Shotgun with ridiculous range and impeccable impact. Now of course this will change over time, as the meta layer moves according to Sledgehammer’s patches alongside user base feedback. I don’t mind going with the more powerful weapons because it allows me to focus rather than spreading myself too thin. Plus, I can be more competitive as a somewhat slightly above average player.

The defining characteristic of Call of Duty is flexibility, and the weapon attachment system is robust in Vanguard. Guns have ten dedicated spots for mixing and matching. Regulars like silencers, scopes, barrels and grips are all represented, adjusting attributes from accuracy to speed. Then there’s additional spots for ammo type, proficiency and kit. These add further customization like incendiary bullets that set targets ablaze or the Vital proficiency which increases critical hit size. As I alluded to before, the tradeoff is the most powerful are among the last to unlock.

Personally, an expanded arsenal of different launchers excites me the most. There are four of them: M1 Bazooka, Panzerschreck, Panzerfaust and MK11 Launcher. The last two are especially amazing during ground tactics. I’ve probably made a lot of opponents mad on smaller maps. The main risks are reloads that take forever and there’s no automatic lock-on for these, it’s straight shooting for all projectiles. Which means taking down airborne vehicles proves more difficult in Vanguard.

Individual play is even further defined by the familiar systems of custom loadouts and other options. Players assign perks, field upgrades, killstreaks then both tactical throwables and lethal grenades. It’s impossible to cover them all in a review. Suffice to say series regulars are all here, even if they have different names. Everything from attack dogs and Molotov cocktails to flamethrowers and spy planes. Variety is the spice of life, and a defining factor of Call of Duty.

I’ll often opt towards a more stealthy and accurate approach. Suppressors and stabilizers that steady recoil pair well with perks like Ghost and Radar to make me more inconspicuous. There’s always a flipside because firepower output is lower plus I’m more susceptible to explosions. This works well in objective modes and larger spaces. Lately I’ve started experimenting with a louder technique using options that give me more grenades and rockets. Combining Demolition, which allows two lethals at spawn, with Supply Box means I can resupply all explosive types. I pair these with a great perk called Piercing Vision that allows me to briefly see through walls when I hit a target. It’s especially effective on more compact maps, and I love being able to bounce between these two distinct styles.

Speaking of maps, or “boards” as veterans dub them, the sheer number at release is one of the most highly impressive aspects of Multiplayer. There’s 20 at present, 16 of which are traditional while four are the individual areas of Champion Hill. It’s a robust total which I believe is the most ever right at launch.

Maps are on the whole consistent. Certain ones are fantastic while there are a couple weaker outliers. There’s legacy areas sprinkled in like Castle and Dome, both from 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. Most of Vanguard’s are new designs. Select favorites include Tuscan, a daring rooftop parlay in Italy, then the real-world German building Kehlsteinhaus represented in Eagle’s Nest which excels in interior engagements between two exterior lanes. Decoy is an incredible outdoor training course area with mock buildings and smashable walls.

Then there’s my choice: Das Haus, in what’s proving a most controversial pick within the community. It’s pure close-quarters mayhem in a remote location where Germans train to infiltrate the U.S. White House. I adore the chaos, one of those love it or hate it type of instant classics a la Nuketown. It often has its own dedicated playlist, or combined lately with a snazzy iteration of Shipment, which works wonders for grinding out levels.

Another introduction in Vanguard is the Combat Pacing system. It offers three distinct options for player population in each match, from the most chill to crazy hectic, and I really dig this particular move. Tactical has the least amount of players, feeling the most like a normal Call of Duty count of 6 versus 6. Assault ramps up the intensity to moderate. Blitz boasts the highest player count and most frenzied of all, leading to constant action and high body counts. The system changes even how a single map can feel, and it’s mostly for the better. Blitz makes even the most open locales feel frenetic. There’s the downside of Tactical hitting on that same sort of big board, which makes it empty. This sort of mini-innovation within the series is a welcome change, especially since there’s flexibility in matchmaking to focus on a single pacing or include them all.

A most frivolous and honestly questionable new feature is the Team MVP concept, which now exists alongside the typical end-of-match Play of the Game or Final Kill replays. Vanguard’s algorithm picks three contestants to highlight when a fight is over, normally those with the most headshots or multi-kills and occasionally showcasing people who led objective tasks. Each player can vote on who was the most valuable, gaining a slight bit of experience points each time. Because there aren’t many win animations and certain rewards are for trivial things like being around teammates for the most time, it’s not the most polished of match finales like say Overwatch.

Nowadays every Call of Duty game introduces their own Operators, or the characters one picks before a given match. Within Vanguard these are mostly visual as there’s no classes or roles like earlier titles. It’s a small roster, each has quips and finishing moves plus those Play of the Game and MVP animations. There is a slight XP boost for playing with a character and their “favorite weapon.” Oh, and of course there’s an Operator Level. It’s mostly another way to see the numbers go up, and increase cosmetic possibilities.

Multiplayer overall here is a sound foundation with excellent map consistency and clever pacing features that increase both the enjoyment and reward frequency. Sure there’s balancing challenges for weapons mostly, which is mostly forgivable early on and can even level the playing field for non-professionals. How it evolves over time will be key. I believe it’s quite enjoyable in its current state, notably on fast-paced maps and close clashes, even for the more casual competitors like yours truly.

It doesn’t have to change much because it relies on fundamentals that work. Whether or not that’s a knock against it comes down to taste and perspective, and I’m in the camp that recognizes how minor differences can enhance that base experience.

Now, to talk about the biggest swing-and-miss: Zombies.

Straight up, this co-op mode wasn’t ready. Because developer Treyarch themselves said the first story beats begin in early December. Right now, it’s a shell of what it should be and the most disappointing aspect of Vanguard’s packaging. Zombies lacks intrigue, replayability, narrative hooks and a reason to stay longer term other than maybe messing around leveling up with friends or seeing how difficult it can get.

Set within a very small area of Stalingrad, the Zombies mode is supposed to be a continuation of the Dark Aether narrative which began last year. For background, Projekt Endstation opened up inter-dimensional portals to a demonic parallel universe and a Nazi commander now wants to control them for a last ditch effort against Allied forces. Basically, players control Special Forces soldiers to see how many otherworldly foes they can take down.

The glaring problem is right now, Zombies has.. turned into a run-based mode that starts in a small hub world then moves into other tiny areas for a single task then teleports players back to that main area to purchase upgrades and the like. The main map features a crafting bench, the “Altar of Covenants,” weapon upgrades and a Pack-a-Punch machine that generates a random gun.

There’s an obvious roguelike influence here, except without the variety or meaningful progression and certainly no mysterious, engaging elements like years past. Which is what I cherished most about Zombies, its ability to be weird and curious with random artifacts and puzzles to solve. Sad to report this is the exact opposite.

Portal objectives rarely require any brainpower. I believe there are only three of them, two of which are variations on staying alive long enough for a timer to run out. The most taxing is Harvest, which asks players to collect runes then deposit them. No variants. Zero coordination needed. The utter definition of monotony.

In typical Zombies fashion, difficulty bumps up a bit after the group of up to four players clears a portal. Which really means they mostly become more bullet spongy and more of them spawn. One would think Zombies offers developers a golden chance to flex muscles on enemy variety and design tactics to push players to their limits.

Nope. There’s three zombie types. Standard shamblers, exploders called Boom Schreiers and Sturmkrieger also known as “Big Annoying Zombie With Machine Gun And Too Much Health.” At least they have cool names, I suppose. Because Vanguard’s idea of challenge is throwing more and more of the same exact fodder, not getting creative with tactics or mutations. Oh wait, I forgot. Some of the base versions do have armor. Which is just a way to disguise giving them a bigger health pool.

Are you asleep yet?

Sure, there are select loadout choices and customization powers. All the guns and attachments from Multiplayer are used, then the player selects one of four “entities” that each have a single power. These are basic abilities dressed up with fancy names like Dragon of Saraxis, an area of effect blast, or Mask of Bellekar that’s just a short-term cloak. Perks can be found around the map, giving more health or speed. Chests drop grenades or different guns, usually throwaway versions. Again, wholly lackluster.

The aforementioned Altar of Covenants is the most impactful of customization tactics and at least provides meaningful benefits. After each round when returning from a portal, a player earns a Sacrificial Heart. These can be exchanged for Covenants, or abilities that spice things up a tad. Bloodlust allows self-healing for melee damage, Death Blow returns ammo for critical kills and Cryofreeze is pretty self-explanatory. The best of these are Brain Rot, which randomly turns a damaged zombie friendly, then Ammo Gremlin which refills ammo in stowed weapons. It eliminates the need to reload constantly, which is a staple of zombie fights.

It’s so bare-bones and boring that I don’t have much more to say about Zombies other than it feels half-baked in its current form. And I’m not sure updates will vastly change that. Its nowhere near as mysterious or intriguing as past iterations, though at least it will have more substance in a couple weeks. Because it drastically needs that.

I guess there’s one reason to play Zombies as a quick, more chill way to gain experience and player level without having to run competitive matches. It’s just flat out bad after the first hour or two when the allure of jumping into portals wears off, the seams start showing and its rampant imperfections take hold of any semblance of fun. There’s not much reason to play Zombies until it’s fixed. If that even happens in the future.

As expected from a project of this magnitude and a team of this size, Vanguard runs smooth as butter on the Xbox Series X and I assume most other platforms because of its pedigree. Performance stability is a staple of first-person shooters, and Call of Duty excels in this department offering up to a 120hz refresh rate on console. There’s also a welcome field of view slider, plus a variety of motion blur and video options. Sadly, there’s no ray tracing implementation though it’s still a gorgeous game where I noticed zero frame rate hitches and no issues running in any mode.

Diving more into settings, Vanguard’s feature suite is extensive. Flexible control mapping alternatives, gameplay changes, movement options, color customization and heads-up display switches are all tweaks available to players. Accessibility is covered with font size, subtitles, crosshair bobbing, the aforementioned color changes plus a variety of text chat features. There’s even the ability to disable graphic content and engage profanity filters. I commend the teams for just how many different configurations they offer.

One glaring omission is a formal photo mode, which is more popular than ever in modern games. Even those with multiplayer elements. Campaign in particular can be stunning and would lead to some epic shots.

In terms of social features, it’s the usual party system where one can team up with platform or Activision friends. There’s also full cross-play and cross-progression in Call of Duty now, the former can be flipped off and the latter is done via Activision account. A neat touch now is Clans, where a group of up to one hundred folks can team up in a group and earn bonuses for doing so.

Luckily I’ve seen limited disruptions in matchmaking and connection. This year’s title also introduced a dedicated anti-cheat team called Ricochet, which was desperately needed. Technologically, Vanguard is an achievement for all folks involved. Just remember to mute all in the lobby when running outside of a party!

Because it’s a modern multiplayer game, there’s all sorts of cosmetic systems from emblems to name plates and weapon skins to those Operator animations I mentioned earlier. It’s ripe for monetization over time, though the usual cosmetic packs aren’t present yet. They certainly will be, I’d imagine when integration with Warzone kicks off in early December.

And that part will be key for the ongoing support and meta game for Vanguard, as it’s another annual launch operating in parallel with Warzone. Right now, the two operate independently. There’s going to be a new map set in the Pacific called Caldera, available on December 9th, which will mark a new season in the Call of Duty universe. The battle royale mode and its current maps have grown a bit stale to me, so I’m excited to try out the changes and see how integration with historical weapons works. It can’t be a clean break because of how much investment players have put into prior seasons to date, even as much as I’d love to see what would happen in that case.

After spending a considerable amount of time with all that Call of Duty: Vanguard has to offer, I’ve come away satisfied with Campaign, impressed with elements of Multiplayer and wholly distraught by an aggressively poor Zombies offering. Sledgehammer’s contributions to story and online play lead the charge while Treyarch’s lackluster fighting against the undead is the weakest link.

Vanguard, like individual instances of many ongoing franchises, is mostly predictable. It does show off a handful of surprises, like select flashback missions in the narrative and the Multiplayer’s new battle pacing system that ramps up the reward feedback loop. Which is essential in the competitive space, even when played casually.

It’s a technical showpiece, plain and simple. There’s clear attention to detail in animation quality and environmental design. One moment, gunsmoke exiting a weapon’s barrel looks real enough to smell the residue. The next, a character jams that new round in the chamber before aiming down their scope to snap off a clean critical hit. The frenzied pacing often hides these qualities that really define a military shooter, and Call of Duty does it as well as any. Even if it does happen every year, there are noticeable improvements for those paying attention.

This sort of iterative effort is akin to a sports game that nails the core experience. It doesn’t have to change much because it relies on fundamentals that work. Whether or not that’s a knock against it comes down to taste and perspective, and I’m in the camp that recognizes how minor differences can enhance that base experience.

Call of Duty is no longer isolated to the once a year event then content packs in the coming months. It’s all the time, ongoing and ever-present. Vanguard as its latest iteration is mostly good, even if not regularly great. It’s still one of the best at those jaw-dropping, blockbuster moments and trailblazing technology.

I’m way content with the time I’ve had in the game so far, and I plan to keep it up over time especially with friends in the online component. And I hope to dip into a better Zombies mode down the line. Foundational mechanics and gratifying progression, plus those “wow” moments when chaining shots together or parachuting across the Pacific during a Campaign mission, are plenty good enough to carry Vanguard even when other aspects weigh it down.

Title: Call of Duty: Vanguard

Release Date: November 5th, 2021

Developer: Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch Studios

Publisher: Activision Blizzard

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Recommendation: While there’s entertainment to be had in the Campaign and it features the most memorable moments, I’m not sure it’s worth the price of admission alone. Multiplayer is the more consistent highlight right now due to great game feel, awesome maps and a steady progression system. Zombies is a total whiff, at least for now. I say it’s worth a try for the first two modes alone, just don’t expect a mind-blowing experience.

Sources: Activision Press Center, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Review: On All Counts, Lost Judgment Repeats as a Dazzling Detective Thriller

How many games let the player investigate a high profile court case, dig deep into an underground network of ex-Yakuza thugs, beat up punks and degenerates of all sorts, address bullying incidents at a school, play seemingly endless mini-games plus experience a riveting narrative that’s simultaneously both humorous and genuine?

None, other than Lost Judgment.

The latest project from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does all of these, and mostly in spectacular fashion. It’s among the best games out of Japan, or really anywhere, in the past decade and a worthy follow-up to a beloved spin-off within the legendary Yakuza franchise.

Because of its framing as a detective thriller, it tackles topics that aren’t often seen in games. There’s themes of bullying, harassment, deception, politics, revenge and exposing flaws in a judicial system. What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

Recently RGG Studio established a divergence in its broader “Yakuza universe.” The mainline Yakuza have transitioned to turn-based role-playing with last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon while Judgment takes the reigns of live action, combat-focused entries. Lost Judgment here in particular is a sequel to 2018’s amazing Judgment, which I also reviewed around the time of its worldwide launch.

At its core, the game is third-person perspective with action, combat, detective and a ton of dialogue elements with mini games and side distractions galore. It’s set in fictional depictions within two of Japan’s major districts: Kamurocho, a bustling section of Tokyo, and an urban retail center of Yokohama called Isezaki Ijincho. The former is carried over from the first game while the latter is a brand new addition here. This dual city approach means more to explore and locations to introduce, including a school that acts as a hub for major side content. It successfully feels fresh while also familiar.

The best thing about the Judgment series, and really most of RGG Studio’s works, is it successfully captures the fantasy of being in Japan’s major cities. Living and breathing the life there between cuisine to eat that offers bonuses, dive bars that serve local beverages, kitties roaming waiting to be pet and gambling halls where Yagami can hit the jackpot. The bright lights, slick pavement and detailed locales give a sense of place like few other games.

Players control sleuth and former lawyer Takayuki Yagami, who returns as the main character. Played by famous Japanese actor and icon Takuya Kimura, Yagami is the definition of an all-around protagonist: smart, agile, smooth and comical. The best type for a playground of this scope. Since launching Yagami Detective Agency last time alongside best bro and reformed gangster Kaito, he’s gained a reputation as a private eye willing to do anything for his clients.

Within this exceptional setting, Lost Judgment boasts a multi-layered narrative with engaging characters and consistent writing. The intrigue begins with the discovery of a body in an abandoned building. Cut to a tutorial mission involving a con artist that introduces many of the game’s interactions like tailing, climbing, fighting, chasing and story via dialogue. Yagami then learns from his former employer the Genda Law Office that its lawyers are in court hearing the verdict on a sexual harassment case involving a police officer. Cut to the courtroom, and this officer reveals the identity of the murdered corpse: it’s a man that bullied his son into suicide.

Just as this revelation shocks the courtroom, Yagami is contacted for help on a seemingly separate case by former thief Sugiura and computer whiz Tsukumo from the original game, a tag team that’s started an independent detective firm called Yokohama 99. Local Seiryo High School is suffering from a bullying and delinquent crisis. From here, our main cast learns there might be connections between this school and the murder, escalating its intensity when gang members, teachers and even politicians are involved. It’s well-paced, engaging and keeps organized via a case log in the menu.

Part of what makes Lost Judgment special is its character lineup, from old friends and rivals to new faces and foes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, it is a detective game after all. It’s as complex and interwoven as something like The Wire. The law, police and judicial elements present their own set of motivations. There’s the gangs and underground groups, making alliances and breaking them often enough. Its school story-line also introduces a plethora of great character moments between the chairman, teachers and student body namely via its club setup.

There’s even a scent-sniffing, case-cracking Shiba Inu doggo detective named Ranpo that helps track down bad guys and unearths valuable items. If a buddy like that isn’t a major selling point, I don’t know what is.

It’s hard to describe the basics of a game with this much to offer. Primarily, Yagami explores these cities doing case work as part of the main campaign plus engages in side quests of varying importance. These are organized in the menu as Main Case, Side Cases and School Stories. Main Case maps out all things related to the harassment and murder investigations. Side Cases are tangential case work, ranging from helping citizens to finding collectibles. School Stories involve an investigation into a shady character and student groups, which I’ll dig into later.

In a third person perspective, the player roams about the streets between citizens and tourists, scooping up items and navigating to the next objective. Luckily Yagami is in quite good shape, plus has a nifty skateboard this time around for faster travel. There is formal fast travel via taxis, but I rarely used it until late game because Lost Judgment makes it worth the while to learn the map and pick things up along the way.

Similar to Japanese RPGs of yesteryear, there are random encounters with enemies. There’s also a ton of fighting as part of the main campaign. Combat is great, fluid as ever. A mix between a modern 3D beat-em-up and character action game, it rewards precision of inputs plus creativity rather than button mashing. Yagami can freely swap between three different styles. Crane is for crowd control, with sweeping roundhouse kicks and room-clearing specials. Tiger is meant for mano a mano moments, aggressive bursts of speed and power with evasive maneuvers. Then there’s Snake, the newest of the bunch. This focuses on counters, disarming and turning attacks against opponents. Each of them showcase Yagami’s unique martial arts background and have their own set of skills.

Spicing up basic battling is the EX Action system which allows for unique contextual strikes and various finishers. Landing hits or consuming certain items fills up the EX gauge. Once charged, executing a button prompt will launch into a quick animation showing that respective special move. My favorite might be when this incorporates friendly fighters into the mix, like a tag-team attack from Kaito and Yagami that devastates multiple opponents at once. Then there’s Drunken Fist, a powerful, stumbling punch which activates after he’s consumed one too many libations. EX Surrender is a fun new trick that can be done on “scared” foes, where Yagami pretends like he’s going to attack then scares them enough to tap out.

When the player isn’t knocking around baddies, there’s other interactions and movement abilities. Some of which are related to actual investigative work, which sets Lost Judgment apart from traditional action games. Climbing, stealth, observing, tailing, chasing and lock-picking are all a part of Yagami’s arsenal.

Climbing is a new feature here, and it’s mostly fine. Nothing too special, reminiscent of titles where the path is clear and it’s mainly a matter of flicking the joystick in the right direction. There’s a “grip” meter that rarely dips into dangerous territory especially after a couple upgrades. These sequences open up new avenues for vertical play, even if they prove to be mostly linear and deliberate. There are alternate paths that might have items to pick up. Otherwise it’s a straight shot to the next objective.

Stealth is another system introduced in Lost Judgment. These sequences are more comical than anything, partially because of the tricks used and mostly because of incapable AI. Yagami can toss coins to distract people or toss homemade smoke bombs at their face then choke out unaware guards. I really didn’t mind them, and some were actually really entertaining. They can open up to give the player choice where to go or what to use as a distraction, plus are short enough to not overstay their welcome.

Then there’s the dreaded tailing sequence. The bane of many a game’s existence. But it’s essential in a detective thriller like this. Basic work for a private eye! And while it’s not the best quest type, Lost Judgment makes the best of them. Usually part of a broader mission. Yagami’s tailing abilities are enhanced in this sequel. Rather than only hiding out of sight, he can act busy if his mark suspects he’s spying on them. This leads to silly moments where he’s tying a shoe or pretending to text, clearly not being suspicious at all. The game even pokes fun at itself, admitting in the tutorial that these are totally normal, unsuspecting things people do. In the broader context, it’s among the best tailing in games.

Occasionally a suspect will take off, resulting in a chase. These are smarter in theory than implementation, forcing the player to make quick decisions or pick the correct route. They also get old after a dozen times. There’s light environmental puzzles during which Yagami uses observation mode, a first-person detective trick that can reveal solutions or hint at infiltration paths. The player can use a camera in a photo opportunity mode, which is pretty clever in that there are multiple objectives to snap that perfect shot. Certain cases or discussions require dialogue games or quick choices to determine which evidence is relevant. Yagami is also a master lock-picker. A quick mini-game pops up whenever there’s a stubborn door in the way.

That’s not even to mention the buzzword system and fancy gadgets Yagami finds. The Buzz Researcher phone app is a social media platform which uses certain terms to narrow down search areas. A high-tech Drone is back, which can be used for races or called at will to reach high places. There’s the Noise Amp, an audio gadget which picks up sounds in the environment. And by using the Detector the player can pick up the signal of bugged devices.

What results is a game with myriad ways of approaching investigation, allowing it to feel fresher than if one of them wasn’t present. Not every aspect is a banger yet it’s collectively excellent.

What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

So, to what end does the game utilize all of these intertwined functions?

Mostly figuring out the bigger picture, solving crimes and helping people in need. Interspersed with a lot of hi-jinks and hilarity, of course.

The main campaign alone is worth the price of admission. Why would a police officer harass a woman on the train then reveal he knows information about a murder in the courtroom? Does it tie into the bullying case at the local high school because that officer said his son was bullied? How do Yakuza bosses, underground fixers and even political figures fit into the mix? There’s a lot of moving parts, so Lost Judgment does a fantastic job of recapping the story after each of its 13 chapters plus maintaining all the relevant investigation within its simple menu. I wish I could say so much more about the narrative twists and tragedies, because it’s gut-wrenching at times especially in its personal touches and how it portrays people suffering within broken societal systems.

An example of its expert design, especially as a sequel, is a chapter where one of the lawyers at Genda Law Office named Saori Shirosaki decides to go undercover at a girls bar to help Yagami and Kaito find a gang leader. It’s a throwback to one of the missions in Judgment where the player takes control of Saori when she used a similar tactic of getting glammed up to work as a hostess at this same bar. This time, her fellow law colleagues end up showing up at the bar. The player must navigate fake flirting with them while also providing good enough service to earn an introduction to the boss. The sequence involves fast decision-making and showcases the writing team’s prowess, then culminating in an epic fight in the VIP section.

Like many games by RGG Studio, Lost Judgment boasts some of the best side content in the industry. Period. The most robust optional path here is what’s called School Stories. Early in the first chapter while trying to sneakily set up cameras at Seiryo High, the player is caught by whip-smart amateur sleuth Kyoko Amasawa. Turns out she’s the leader and sole acting member of the Mystery Research Club (MRC), for which Yagami becomes an advisor.

Amasawa’s goal is trying to determine the identity of a shady character called The Professor that fulfills students’ nefarious requests on the black market, like quiz results or recent gossip. She asks Yagami to infiltrate different student groups that this Professor is targeting. It’s part advisor work and part undercover, depending on the activity. Within school grounds, the player consults on clubs focused on dance, robotics, photography and even eSports. It then expands outside to a boxing gym, biker gang, girls bar, skateboarding squad and underground casino. Like someone trying to win a “best all around” superlative.

Honestly, these School Stories and the corresponding activities are meaty enough to be their own game. While certain ones are more involved than others, each one has its own quest-line with new characters, an activity, lots of dialogue plus ridiculously funny writing.

One member of the Seiryo Rabbits Dance Club is suspected to be a “sugar baby,” a young woman looking to date older men for their money. As the player investigates, there’s a corresponding rhythm game complete with flashy choreography and frilly outfits to lead the team to nationals. Separately, the president of the eSports squad is accused of cheating and an anti-video games teacher threatens to shut it down. Yagami must perfect his skills at Virtua Fighter 5, yes the actual 2010 game, to challenge its top member to determine his honesty. Then at the casino, the player must duel against a gambling wunderkind who can seemingly predict other people’s actions. An added bonus in that case is the monetary gain, but it’s the lesson that counts right?

If there’s one critique on School Stories, it’s the repetition and resource investment to progress effectively in robotics, boxing and biker gang in particular. The Robotics Club has an entire competitive mode hierarchy where Yagami not only controls its main robot, he also makes key design decisions leading through a major tournament. It takes resources found throughout the world or earned winning scrimmages to beef up the robo-team’s capabilities. Matches can be rage-inducing. The biker infiltration is a similar instance where the player competes in so-called “death races” and must win against underlings before challenging each boss. This requires upgrading multiple motorcycles and winning races.

I’m impressed by how much the development team invested in School Stories, and the end result is pretty stunning in both the narrative reveals and fun activities. It just takes patience and building up to get there, it’s truly a story-line to itself.

There are a whopping 42 side cases in Lost Judgment, some of which are tackled alongside the main quest to gain things like gadgets or buddies like Ranpo the doggo detective. As anticipated from this development team, many of them are quirky, go to unexpected places and result in great rewards, the last of which is key for a successful optional mission to me.

One has Yagami finding The Arachnid Man, as social media chatter suggests there’s someone climbing tall buildings. Another deals with an imposter pretending to be a film studio shooting footage for a robbery scene. A time capsule hunt leads to a potential spark of romance. A particularly unique group of students chase what they think are UFOs. Supposedly a phantom ramen stand only pops up at night, with rumors about its broth being made in an unsavory manner. Someone even impersonates Yagami to give him a bad rep, even when he shouldn’t.

There’s a set of cases under what’s called the Dastardly Detective, a rival private eye that’s bugging regular folks and every day items. Another case has Yagami figuring out why bad things keep happening to people with a particular family heirloom. Separately, in an amazing callback, Judgment fans will remember white ninja Ryan Acosta. Well he’s back, losing members of his dojo to an opposing one in town run by a Russian ninja. Apparently they have some secret weapon, which ends up being one of the oldest tricks in the book.

I’m giving fair warning. I have to spoil that Lost Judgment has one of the single best tailing sequences of all time. You heard that right, an amazing tailing mission. It’s called “My First Errand.” A father contracts Yagami and Kaito with following son Toru during his first solo errand: getting bread from the store. It’s essential not to get caught, otherwise he won’t feel grown up! While tailing this brave boy on a busy street, the duo is almost found out until they blend in by putting their heads in a cardboard cutout. Turns out they are stuck! Kaito has a massive melon and Yagami used the child-sized cutout. The two have to tail behind Toru while moving the cutout, in a ridiculous sequence of banter and embarrassment. The kid bumps into a couple of street punks. The player can’t fight, so it comes down to picking the right facial expression.

This ten minute ordeal reveals the true genius of Lost Judgment: Taking the mundane and making it memorable.

It’s not all business for Yagami Detective Agency. RGG Studio brings its vast suite of mini-games and quick activities to satisfy as much downtime as the player can handle. Drone-racing, dartboards, arcades with pixelated classics, virtual reality, UFO catchers, light-gun games, batting cages, a golf driving range and more I’m probably forgetting because there are so many. Even a fully-functioning Sega Master System with eight games, cartridges like Fantasy Zone and Penguin Land hidden around its world.

The player even gets to pick names for stray kitties who then can be pet, fed and stared at affectionately around the map. It has its own experience point (XP) system, an added bonus since it’s already at maximum cute factor.

Speaking of gaining experience, Lost Judgment is generous with both cash and XP needed to upgrade general statistics and combat abilities. Money is straightforward enough, earned through missions or random finds. There’s vendors and eateries everywhere that offer health, power-ups and materials. The Skills system is robust, falling under multiple categories: Stats, Abilities, Tiger, Crane, Snake and Special. Stats house basic attributes like amount of health, attack power, EX level and experience boosts. Abilities diversify general combat, offering things like wall strikes and running assaults. Tiger, Crane and Snake all relate to each of Yagami’s combat styles. Special skills are anything additional: things like temporary buffs, tailing or observation boosts plus increasing the drunk meter.

I found investing in Abilities and Special to be the most beneficial, then dove more into the three individual fighting technique sets later game. First focused on those that gave more XP in battle and upgrades to the EX gauge, thus boasting a lot of special moves as early as possible.

Items are everywhere in Lost Judgment, depicted by a shiny mark that collects automatically when walking or flying the drone over it. The most rare of these are required to make Extracts, super powerful temporary buffs that unlock after re-connecting with the hermit named Iyama. Each requires an empty vessel and a handful of ingredients, or can be purchased for a high cost, and the result is extraordinary even if short-lived, usually for a minute or two. Die Hard allows for resurrection with full health. Deceptive Mist Tactic throws down a mist that turns foes into allies. Smoke Bomb Tactic is, well, pretty self-explanatory.

The best of the best Extracts were Boon of Fire and Energy Ball. The former gives Yagami ferocious flaming fists while the latter basically turns him into a Street Fighter character and Hadouken energy blasts for a minute straight.

An investment in powerful special moves and Extract usage really spices up what’s already great combat, especially huge group encounters and boss engagements. It’s helpful in sticky situations, some of the most absurd fun to be had within the game’s action.

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

One of the main reasons Lost Judgment shines in the context of a popular genre is how its voice acting and character portrayals really benefit its narrative momentum, plus elevate side missions into more remarkable moments. Whenever a game is set in Japan, I’ll play with Japanese audio and English subtitles. This is extremely refined here, with a dazzling cast led by the aforementioned Takuya Kimura. Its most improved aspect is its English dub where Greg Chun takes the lead role.

This ties in with its presentation, character models and attention to detail in even the slightest of areas. Close-ups are often used during cutscenes, showcasing the team’s incredible facial modeling and technical prowess. Food looks appetizing, animal fuzz is realistic, signage reads like real advertising and animations are top-notch. Its in-game menu is represented as a smartphone, each app corresponding to a different function like Skills, Cases or Buzz Researcher.

Audio design and soundtrack are in lockstep with its visual cues. Cats meow in the background. Footsteps scuff along the street. Passerby’s chat with one another. Weapons clunk when used in battle. And the music! How it changes depending on the mood, notably during dialogue sequences. Suspenseful when there’s uncertainty, joyful at times of elation. Good auditory design usually melts into the background, the best of it moves in lockstep with what the player can see.

On the technical side, it’s similar to RGG Studio’s prior project Yakuza: Like a Dragon with two graphical modes. Standard targets 1440p resolution while sticking to 60 frames-per-second while Resolution Priority hits native 4K while capped at 30 frames-per second. I played mostly in Standard where performance was smooth and unencumbered on Xbox Series X.

A game of this magnitude has a lot to organize from a user interface and overall experience standpoint. Lost Judgment does this well enough, especially its cell phone and main menu navigation. The downside is there are minimal quality of life and inconsistent accessibility features. Luckily there’s four difficulty options, including Simple which offers assist functionality. Controls can be remapped. However, colorblind options are nonexistent and text size is fixed. Quick item usage is limited to one at a time, which is borderline embarrassing for a game with this many power-ups. There’s really not much else from an accessibility standpoint, a notable gap compared to where modern games are going.

I did appreciate the team clearly showing a detailed content warning right at the start, before getting into the action. It warns there’s violence, traumatic depictions, sexual assault, bullying and other triggering themes. This is a welcome addition for the sake of everyone’s mental health.

Beyond complaints on the quality of life side and uneven nature of certain School Stories, it’s hard to find many major critiques of Sega’s latest published title. More like minor annoyances.

It certainly could be overwhelming, particularly for first-timers, due to the sheer amount of content. Partially because a lot is carried over from Judgment. While I don’t think it’s essential to play the original, it’s very helpful to at least learn about it via a recap video.

Random encounters are all over the place while exploring, which can disrupt the flow of progress. It’s not that these aren’t useful, it’s the best way to gain XP notably after buying the related abilities that boost XP rate, but can get in the way of faster progression in the narrative. There’s a Stealth Extract that lowers encounter rate, and most can be avoided using the skateboard for movement. Certain times a mini-boss will spawn that guarantees a sizable reward, so those are welcome.

For a game about being a private eye, disguises and outfits are vastly underutilized. Wardrobe changes aren’t allowed other than hyper-specific cases. I’m surprised by this given how much humor means to RGG Studio. Why can’t I dress up as a vampire or show up in cut-scenes as a ninja whenever I want?

Skateboarding around the open city is a great addition. Unfortunately non-playable character density can make it tricky to maneuver across certain areas. This mainly happens in Kamurocho, the area from the first game, because it wasn’t specifically designed for skating. Isezaki Ijincho has more open roads and less crowded areas, plus a skate park area dedicated to trick shows and races.

Its relationship portion is far inferior to Judgment, which had multiple potential romantic interests for Yagami all with differing personalities. It was fun getting to know them, picking which gifts and activities they would like most and building a close connection. Lost Judgment’s only potential match is part of the School Stories at the Girl’s Bar location, requiring a repetitive dialogue mini-game to even unlock the potential for dating.

And, well, there’s still tailing. Even vastly improved or spiced up, slowly following a target remains among the most monotonous of mission types. If someone is vehemently against tailing from a distance, these parts of Lost Judgment won’t be fun.

Its most unforgivable sin is there’s no longer a functioning pinball table at Yagami Detective Agency. How dare they!

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

Each type of sequence, whether stealth or tailing, is used in moderation and contributes to its identity as something more than standard third-person action. It’s transcendent in the genre, picking up where the amazing original game left off.

Lost Judgment is that rare jack-of-all-trades title that’s at least good at everything it attempts, if not sensational. It’s the perfect type of experience that can satisfy players of all types. Run-time can be whatever the player makes it, which is a benefit in today’s busy release calendar.

Those that want to mainline its twisting and turning main campaign will be thrilled by Yagami and team’s investigation into the mysterious murder and harassment incident as it escalates to impact teachers, criminal, judicial and even political spheres.

If someone wants to spend hundreds of hours playing mini-games and classic video games, that’s possible too. Then there’s the entire set of school cases that tells a separate unique story while incorporating a number of mini quests and activities of its own.

After plenty of laughs and a few gut-punches, figuratively and quite literally, Lost Judgment proves it’s earned master class status. A most memorable, fantastic journey that serves its audience with welcome distractions and a judicial drama for the ages.

Title: Lost Judgment

Release Date: September 24th, 2021

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One.

Final Score: 9/10

Recommendation: It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that Lost Judgment is a must-play RGG Studio joint. It’s a standout of game design balancing its various aspects, where the result is a whole as incredible as most of its parts.

Sources: Sega, Certain Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Review: Deathloop Is Made of Great Parts That Could Be Excellent Next Time Around

“If I’m not dead, then what the bleep am I?”

Well if it’s 2021, then probably caught in a time loop.

Expanding on a mechanic seemingly at peak popularity, Deathloop is the latest time-bending title to be set in a never-ending cycle that resets upon ending. And it’s a seriously good one, even if its punchy gameplay, clever level design and crafty progression aspects mask its fatal flaws such as lack of variety, uneven ability usefulness plus an unsatisfying story arc. Moments of excellence only highlight its potential for greatness, as it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights it so stylishly attempts to grasp.

I adore so much about Arkane Lyon’s creation, which doesn’t fit neatly into current genre conventions. It’s a first-person action game with shooting, exploration, puzzle, stealth and run-based elements that presents as a sandbox immersive sim then really ends up being more linear and restrictive than it initially promises. Its timeline is out of order, a nifty way for the team to tell a narrative primarily by slowly dispensing information then allowing the player to manipulate outcomes within this overall framework.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

That mysterious, quick-witted woman is Julianna Blake who acts as the main antagonist. While mercilessly heckling Colt via the radio, her goal is maintaining the loop’s integrity. Which means hunting Colt as he tries to kill seven other fellow Visionaries. She can invade mid-run, controlled by either AI or a person online. This sort of multiplayer is a novel concept where it’s much more fun to be Julianna of course, busting up a run as opposed to losing. Visionaries themselves have key roles in the history and management of Blackreef, and the loop ends only if they are taken out in a single day.

This place is meant to be a utopia for most inhabitants dubbed “Eternalists” as they are experiencing a form of amortality, effectively being unable to die. To Colt, it’s a suffocating trap from which he must be freed. He and Julianna retain knowledge across loops, an important distinction compared to most everyone else who are experiencing the “First Day” indefinitely. 

During a tutorial that’s a contender for longest ever because it takes a couple hours to get one’s bearings, the game spills its general structure and gameplay tips. There are four different areas across Blackreef: Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, Updaam and The Complex. Each can be accessed via a menu at four times of day: Morning, Noon, Afternoon or Night. Time doesn’t move forward while at these locations, only in the menu between them. And order doesn’t matter, Colt can wait until a later time of day if needed. It’s a smart way to allow players to take time devouring each map, learning the intricacies without the pressure of a ticking clock. Once nighttime is over, or Colt perishes, the loop resets back to dawn.

Which means there are 16 different combinations, all of which take place on the same base area yet showcase a variety of scenarios. Places look fresh in the early sunrise while everyone is waking up, possibilities supposedly endless to all. By sundown, the worst are battered or blown up. The best are ready for a snazzy masquerade ball or big environmental puzzle. It’s through these mechanisms that Colt influences the world to precisely line up his kills. The player’s main goal is to figure out how to either manipulate characters or leverage their movements across areas to achieve an “ultimate” run where every single one doesn’t survive.

Objectives in Deathloop are organized using a system of leads: One is a set of Visionary storylines, mapping out where each individual starts and the most relevant information learned to bring about their demise. What’s curious about these is they don’t actually end the first time Colt kills a given Visionary. He has to do it the correct way for the lead to “complete”, which means it’s then ready to be a part of his master plan.

For instance, the first big lead during the tutorial phase is Doctor Wenjie Evans at The Complex. She’s actually the one responsible for the loop, her hope was to have an eternity to learn about it and while studying she realizes she comes to the same conclusions each day. Thus realizing she forgets each night. Her major contributions are related to upgrades I’ll discuss later. Her main ability is duplication, pulling in copies of herself from other timelines. While one way to kill her is taking out each of her copies, that might not be the optimal outcome.

The other objective type is a set of Arsenal Leads. These aid in learning how to acquire Slabs, unique powers from most Visionaries, plus select elite level weapons. Slab acquisition happens naturally while targeting the Visionary Leads, then high-level weapons act as a sort of side quest within the guidelines of each run. This is essential in my opinion, especially given the game’s limited arsenal.

There are also menu options for Discoveries and Documents. The former shows action items that build up over time as the player explores. The latter is anything related to character journals or audio logs. Some are essential to move the narrative forward, others reward with bits of lore and help round out what the heck is going on while some explain minor systems. All of this is a lot to take in and was overwhelming for a while.

From this menu navigation to moving around the world and engaging in combat, Arkane has made a core experience where almost everything has such a great feel. Controls are snappy and always responsive. There’s this tangible feedback, partially due to technology in the DualSense controller, that bolsters immersion even in the most basic of interactions. 

Gameplay for the most part is predictable for a first-person game, especially in the Arkane lineage of Dishonored and Prey. There’s walking, traversal, climbing, shooting and grenade tossing. Stealth is viable and I’d argue essential in the first half of the game’s 20 to 30 hours. A “focus” button can mark and examine a certain number of enemies, which is helpful when gauging the layout of a new area. Then there’s hacking of sensors and turrets via the Hackamajig, an on-the-nose gadget which somehow also acts as a radio.

Weapons fall into traditional archetypes: pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and rifles. There really aren’t that many different options. Long range is particularly lacking. And early on, rarity is low. Colt finds a base level gun early to practice target shooting. Every other piece of gear is picked up from defeated enemies. Visionaries and Arsenal Leads having the highest quality. Crappy weapons can even jam, “because they are old” the game argues, which is quite literally the opposite of fun. I wish it was never greenlit. It’s the type of system clearly added to encourage stealth in the early parts, even though the player’s low health and minimal ability suite already does that. Luckily, the best weapons won’t jam which leads me to wonder why have it in the first place.

Each Visionary has a role to play, a distinct personality, individual relationships and most even have fancy powers to steal. These are called Slabs. They offer up core abilities, which will be familiar to fans of Arkane’s earlier works. The first of which is Reprise, a slab intrinsic to Cole’s loadout which can revive him twice. There are five others: The teleporting Shift from Charlie Montague. Aether from Egor Serling offers invisibility. Nexus links foes together so hurting one does the same to everyone else, held by Harriet Morse. Fia Zborowska has Havoc, basically an enrage cheat code. Then there’s Aleksis Dorsey’s Karnesis, a form of telekinesis that can throw enemies around. Julianna can actually use any of these abilities, so she’s another source. Using these takes a regenerating resource called Power.

A nice system around these slabs is upgrading them. The first time a Visionary is killed, Colt earns the base slab. Each time after that, he can collect an upgrade linked to their particular ability. It’s an incentive to finish out portions of a run or to take down Julianna when she invades. For example there are slam and area-of-effect options for Karnesis, while Shift can reach further or hover in mid-air. Very much welcome, especially the latter for rapid traversal.

Enhancing Colt and his gear are items called Trinkets, customization options that have a notable impact. These are pieces “imbued with Blackreef’s temporal anomaly” and can either be made in certain locations or picked up from enemy drops. Character trinkets are general buffs like boosted health, more power, faster movement and the like. Weapon trinkets can improve accuracy, damage, rate of fire or reload speed. Combining these helps beef up Colt to take on a more run-and-gun approach, or spec towards stealth with more silent alternatives.

So, how does the player retain things other than knowledge across runs? A mechanic called Infusion, originally discovered by the aforementioned Dr. Wenjie. Using Residuum, a resource collected from items throughout the world or by killing bosses, the player can carry over weapons, slabs and trinkets from one run to the next. Anything in one’s current inventory can also be sacrificed for a select amount of Residuum, which means duplicates or unused items can be useful. Especially because Residuum itself can’t be carried over at the end of a night and is lost upon death, so it’s essential to hang onto it and allocate towards becoming more powerful.

Regrettably the rules of Infusion are confusing. Presentation in the menu is messy. It takes a while to understand what carries over and why, resulting in missed infusions or precious lost items. The best approach is to infuse anything and everything because there’s a risk of dying and losing everything that isn’t locked in. There’s filtering options which can help a bit, it’s still not the most intuitive upgrading path.

The ultimate problem here, and it’s one of my major gripes with Deathloop, is the limitation of its loadout system. Having three weapon slots is perfectly fine. That works. It’s the slab and character trinket options that hurt. Colt can only have two slabs equipped at once. Shift alone is almost an essential power, therefore always taking up a slot and making it so that there’s one spot for four other slabs. If Colt can have all these slabs at once, why can’t he use them? I mean Blackreef is this special temporal location where time is clearly special. Isn’t there a lore workaround that would allow him to alternate between more than two slabs?

Similarly character trinkets are limited to four. Double jump is classified as a trinket rather than an inherent skill. So it’s really three slots as far as I’m concerned. Double-jump is a ridiculous video game thing that most characters have by default. Colt should too. I assume Arkane wanted to streamline these systems so as to not confuse players, since their prior games had a ton of different skills. So then let us pay Residuum to unlock additional slots as we get to know the game. It could focus attention during the early portion then add to character growth later on, and by the end both Colt and the player would understand how to leverage them together.

The tricky part with a game as ambitious and feature-packed as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.

Setting up these loadout setups and character systems is well and good. I’m surprised to report that the best moments happen when it all goes to crap. Which is often in Deathloop. At least for me. It’s the exact opposite of something like Dishonored in that regard, where I never had any success with combat. Shooting hits hard here, and it’s the most enjoyable and effective strategy other than the first few times through each level. Assuming the player has powered up. Downside is stealth is much more of a slog than arousing the sort of tense dread that’s key for such sequences. I just didn’t feel as compelled to take my time when the alternative felt that much better.

Tying into the location mechanic mentioned earlier, a most genius move from the development team is its take on progression. The player chooses where and when to start a given go, whether it’s for key information gathering, targeting a Visionary’s unique power or focusing on an individual weapon lead. It’s the type of rewarding feedback loop that makes a player feel smart and more enabled, both from a knowledge standpoint plus actual in-game capabilities. Colt as a character is growing as he’s remembering why the heck he’s on Blackreef.

There’s also progression baked into levels. Certain collectibles talk about the player’s prior actions. Enemy placement also changes based on time of day. Some denizens are drunk and easy to kill. Others have geared up so they are much stronger. Visionaries can move around and be manipulated. The most glaring instance here is a big party thrown by Visionary Aleksis Dorsey taking place at his mansion in Updaam. It’s really the biggest singular event during the loop. Depending on what Colt does during earlier phases of the day, major characters will attend the event which makes it easier to take them out in succession.

Contributing to a sense of place and aesthetic, Blackreef has its own distinct look plus history to discover. Aesthetic does a ton of heavy lifting in Deathloop. Style is uber slick, a 60’s jazz-spy vibe complete with war-torn trappings, scientific experiments, pop art decor, a soundtrack full of piano chords with blaring horns and even animated sequences straight out of a noir cartoon thriller. This is totally enhanced by ongoing banter between Colt, his inner voice and Julianna’s constant poking fun.

The famed Arkane level design and environmental expertise is solid in this sort of setting. Cold War era industrial buildings allow for labyrinthian corridors and subterranean passageways. The Complex is Blackreef’s research center, where Dr. Wenjie and Egor Serling conduct unconventional tests in sterile laboratories plus outdoor satellite arrays. Fristad Rock houses an intricate upscale dance club and mysterious underground bunker. All locations have various locked doors and un-powered levers, clearly indicating the need for further information. What’s cool is most access codes are randomized, meaning they change for different players and even across loops. It’s a crafty way to change things up.

Updaam houses a handful of its most stellar areas, mainly because that’s where gamemaker and Visionary Charlie Montague operates plus Aleksis hosts the aforementioned mansion party. Montague has built these live-action games scattered throughout different maps which he calls “Charlie Challenges.” The Moxie is a set of laser and pressure plate challenge rooms. Condition Detachment is the name of his space invader type of game, which houses his personal lair and one of the main areas where he’s vulnerable. There’s also Charlie’s robot called 2-Bit, made from half of his brain and one of the few sentient beings that remembers things across loops. It’s crucial to explore these areas.

This is all to say one of the things Deathloop does best is make Blackreef as memorable for its character as its practicality, namely in offering alternate route options for Colt. It’s a bizarre place where intriguing scientific questions are asked and not many answers are needed by most.

The run-based nature here and neat side activities lends itself well to quick sessions as much as marathons. Someone can play strictly for the purpose of gathering information. Others are used to take out Visionaries. Even get in on some invading. Within the industrial shore town of Karl’s Bay, there’s an unconventional way to make trinkets. An amatuer science team sets up a failed experiment to harness Blackreef’s temporal power. There’s a machine that exposes the area to “visitors” from other timelines, which Colt has to kill quickly in order to collect enough Residuum. There’s plenty of individual tasks to complete, even if some aren’t necessarily as rewarding.

Speaking of rewarding optional content, I have to give a special shout out to Heritage Gun. It’s a top-level Arsenal lead reward from arguably the best side event in the game which spans an entire map. While technically a shotgun, it has a slug round mode with incredible range. Fans of The Chaperone in Destiny will agree.

I mentioned the feedback and general feel before. A major component is sound design in Deathloop. It’s straight up mean. Pure. Colt’s boots crunch across the hard cement. Julianna’s radio chatter emanates from the DualSense controller speaker. Announcements from Visionaries blare through the streets. And the kill sound when using a weapon is up there with the best shooters of all time, crunchy and violent. It’s especially satisfying when using a rifle.

Tying in with the audio design is how voice acting, dialogue and writing is top-notch. Especially the two main characters. It’s amazing to see black leading characters and actors in a triple-A game of this caliber, both of which are exceptional performances. Jason E. Kelley plays Colt and Ozioma Akagha features as Julianna, each getting the best out of the other. It helps that their writing is savvy, and I looked forward to hearing their quick antagonizing at the start of each sequence.

Unfortunately, the distinction within Deathloop for its most fatal of flaws is rigidity of effective play styles and lack of variety hidden beneath the veil. Weapon archetypes are restricted to just the handful I mentioned before. And there’s at most a couple within a given type. Especially long-range. Other than a sniper hidden behind an Arsenal Lead, there’s a single rifle to find. Some of its best top-end gear is locked behind the Deluxe Edition.

The decisions around loadout options are most restrictive and unfortunate. Certain powers feel essential, like Shift allowing teleporting and quick movement especially vertically. Others are flat out inferior or hyper-specific for more hardcore fans. Like Nexus, the one that can tether enemies together, is fiddly and unreliable.

I was hoping Arkane kept with its tradition of giving players more credit in our understanding of how abilities can synergize. I know Deathloop leans into action elements more than its predecessors. The beauty of an immersive sim or sandbox game is still flexibility of choice. Limiting the use of various hard-earned powers feels like an unnecessary constraint. Hand the player tools then let them decide, rather than forcing them to pick.

Elsewhere there’s superfluous features that didn’t jive with so many other smart decisions. There’s a sort of cosmetic outfit system for Colt and Julianna, which doesn’t mean much when everything is first person. These are mostly earned by protecting the loop as Julianna, which I guess is some incentive to play as her. Then there’s dual wielding weapons, a setup that’s against the very framework of having a weapon in one hand then a power or hacking device in the other. The only time I used it was with one of the special weapons that transforms from dual pistols to a submachine gun, because there’s a damage boost associated with doing so.

In terms of opposition to Colt’s bloodbath, most enemies are flat-out dumb. The main challenge comes from overwhelming numbers rather than savvy tactics. Difficulty levels in this context would be very much welcome. It’s so easy to trick or lose Eternalists. At least it can be hilarious!

For the most part, Deathloop avoids the deathtrap of most time loop games: Repetition. That is until the endgame, when there’s little else to figure out or discover. When the targets are all lined up. There’s really only one way to finish the game properly. So it comes down to execution. It’s demoralizing to be invaded or make one mistake busting that final run. Losing time towards the finale is what hurts most, not materials or upgrades because the player is swimming in them by that point.

Arkane shows its more level-based roots here in guiding toward the optimal run, less akin to moving chess pieces on a board and more like finally seeing the solution in a board game with a predefined path. No matter what one has done before, conforming to the “right way” is the only option. Which is why I consider Deathloop to be ultimately a linear narrative jumbled up to make it seem otherwise, which is excellent during the discovery phase then traditional once the picture clears up.

I will say its final gauntlet of ripping through the Visionaries was admittedly intense the first time I did it. Like a boss rush. It was amplified because Julianna showed up at night during the last push. I wonder if the game’s programmed to do that. If so, kudos to the team for ramping up that adrenaline. Subsequent tries are much less so, because the player already knows what to do. It’s the problem of knowing a solution before being able to finish a puzzle, leading to an anticlimactic situation.

Quality of life features and various options are a mixed bag. The tutorial menu is exceptional. All of the game’s mechanics and systems are organized in a single spot, which is convenient. Heads-up display has a ton of flexibility. There’s not much in the way of dedicated accessibility options beyond text size. No colorblind considerations or detailed controller mapping. There’s no actual map or waypoint system, which could be helpful even considering all the hand-holding it does documenting everything the player finds. Plus there’s no photo mode, for those that might be curious.

Visual options on console are more varied. All of them have dynamic 4K scaling. One mode favors resolution, a second is where performance prioritizes a steady 60 frames-per-second then a raytracing mode. Naturally I played in performance mode, which was flawless. I have read about certain challenges on PC, which Arkane is addressing.

Sad to report I did experience certain technical issues on PlayStation 5. The game hard-crashed twice, causing me to lose progress since it saves only at the start of a given area. I had one instance where the menu overlay froze and wouldn’t leave the user interface, making the game unplayable without restarting. The most weird of all was on the controller side, losing control of the character, dropping inputs and not being responsive. I’ve never had that happen with any other PlayStation 5 game since its launch. I even updated the game pad to the latest software, it continued to happen occasionally.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far.

Here’s the toughest part of Deathloop. Maybe this is personal, though I bet I’m not the only one. It can be tiring playing a game where you have to be “on” all the time. When everything is out to kill you. It would be ideal if there were ways to guard against being seen. If cosmetics actually acted as disguises or deception came into play. Maybe more eavesdropping and investigation. Learning information by pretending to be an Eternalist. Using a mask to mingle at Alex’s party then isolate a target. The “sneak around until caught then murder anything that moves” mentality is much more basic than comparable assassin simulators like Hitman. It can feel just as badass to execute a clinical misdirection, and it’s often more efficient.

To act within the constraints of Deathloop takes a lot of experimentation, patience and time. One early tool-tip pops up to say “don’t just shoot everything.” Once Colt is powered up, it’s quite literally a feasible option, if not the best path, to do exactly that. Why slow and steady when there’s a much more effective strategy? There can be fun in experimentation I guess, though is that a good enough motivator for most players? Not those like me.

Up until this point, I haven’t included much about its narrative. It’s tricky to avoid spoilers in the context of a time loop game, and honestly the story isn’t anywhere near a highlight. There’s random tidbits of history and lore told via collectibles. Julianna drip-feeds certain points of Colt’s past during dialogue. I think the story itself is less important than the manner in which it’s told here. There’s also the ending, of which there are multiple versions, all of which are disappointing and ambiguous. I’m alright with open-ended conclusions. This just isn’t a partially good one of those.

Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far. It’s truly a more constrained, even linear experience disguised as something with more options and possibilities. Story is jumbled by its nature then even when it’s mapped out, it’s mostly middling.

It claims to offer a lot, then limits how the player uses its tools. This makes it tricky to describe Deathloop at its core. First person action? Puzzle murder sim? Run-based shooter? Semi-sandbox stealth? If this were a test, the only answer would be “it wants to be all of the above which means it ends up being something else.”

Some of these make it amazing. It’s a heck of a lot of fun in the heat of battle, hip-firing shotguns and clearing baddies on the way to a boss room. Then slows to a snooze, walking the same looking rooms for crumpled papers or recorded logs. There’s rewarding side content, then optional exploration that just isn’t worthwhile except for the most diehard of lore fanatics.

It’s a conundrum. In some ways more ambitious than predecessors in Arkane’s heritage, yet the result is just as focused. Jumbling the timeline is a clever presentation style. Like a murderous Memento or even more bloody Pulp Fiction. The journey of getting there is where true genius is revealed, because the final revelation is much more pedestrian than it could have been.

It’s presented as having freedom and creativity mixed within a loop concept. It ends up being closer to a linear shooter campaign with a handful of powers and select hacking capabilities all jumbled up a la Source Code, where the goal is to figure out how to execute the right outcome rather than an outcome of one’s choosing. There’s fun in getting there, it’s a fantastic game. There’s just a handful of elements that miss the mark, enough not to dub it a masterpiece.

Title: Deathloop

Release Date: September 14th, 2021

Developer: Arkane Lyon

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Platforms: PlayStation 5 (Timed Console Exclusive), PC.

Recommendation: It’s an odd one from a platform standpoint, the rare PlayStation 5 console exclusive published by a company now owned by Microsoft. Deathloop itself is up there with Arkane’s prior releases, especially better on the action side. Definitely a must-play for PS5 and PC owners specifically those that prefer shooters as opposed to pure stealth games. Don’t expect it to say much thematically or in the way of a riveting narrative. It’s purely a fun time figuring out puzzles, select side content and blasting through maps full of enemy fodder. Worth it!

Sources: Bethesda Softworks.

-Dom

Review: Psychonauts 2 is an Incredible Sequel That Doesn’t Mind Being Weird & Wholesome

“Oh, you think the human mind is safe? That’s cute!”

It’s difficult to be genuinely funny. Always walking a line between upbeat and morose, corny and original, hilarity and outright bombing. Even trickier to make media that’s consistently humorous, especially a video game spanning over multiple hours. Near impossible to find the right balance between that humor and hitting impactful subject matter plus layering an entertaining gameplay loop on top of everything.

Psychonauts 2 is that near impossible outcome.

It’s a unique, comical and even thought-provoking third-person adventure game that combines exquisite humor, witty references, well-written characters, productive exploration, trippy environments and satisfying mechanics. It’s that full course meal with no filler, unlike any other series in the industry and a worthy follow-up within a franchise that stands out for mostly the right reasons. The weird ones, too.

Psychonauts 2 is clearly a labor of love from developer Double Fine Productions, made mostly prior to the studio becoming part of Xbox Game Studios. The sequel to 2005’s cult classic Psychonauts is the culmination of many years, assisted by a crowd-funding campaign. The team obviously used that time to maximize the belly laughs, detailed world-building and genius general direction that makes it so good.

It’s fun. And funny. Granted, occasionally dark. Then has the courage to ask big questions surrounding mental health, self-reflection and human consciousness. It’s a psychology lesson and philosophy debate layered within third-person action platforming. A total trip, and well worth the wait.

Studio founder Tim Schafer and team start Psychonauts 2 with a great cutscene intro, summarizing both the first release and virtual reality game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. This allows a quick refresher for fans then an entry point for everyone else. The recap shows how 10-year old physic Razputin “Raz” Aquato fled from the family circus, was found by a spy agency called the Psychonauts, fought off a rogue summer camp counselor with the help of fellow campers, learned about his psychic powers in the original then rescued Psychonauts leader Truman Zanotto in the VR spin-off.

A few days later, the sequel begins.

Back at Psychonauts “Motherlobe” headquarters, self-proclaimed dentist and amateur brain surgeon Dr. Loboto is being interrogated because of his involvement in Zanotto’s kidnapping. By diving into his brain, a common tactic used by the squad, agents Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello along with the player controlling Raz learn that someone internally is feeding information to an outside evil mastermind. Turns out Loboto is merely a puppet. The boss’ name is Maligula. Allegedly deceased long ago, her “Deluginist” followers are attempting to bring her back with necromancy, an area the Psychonauts have suspiciously been funding recently. That doesn’t sound good. It means there’s a mole! The sequence acts as both story setup and an introduction to action mechanics, namely platforming in 3D realms and light melee combat with ranged capabilities.

The Motherlobe acts as a home base where Raz learns he’s actually an intern. It’s an awesome hub, more expansive than Whispering Rock summer camp. Agents scatter the halls. A mural of “The Psychic Six” founders looms over the common area. There’s a mail room, barber shop and even a bowling alley. Raz meets the other interns, a scenario reminiscent of his fellow campers in the prior game.

Considering it takes place in both the physical and mental planes, Psychonauts 2 is all about its cast of characters with the interns, agents, foes and even Raz’s family playing huge parts. Many of them are quite literally the levels or “dungeons” as these places exist only inside their minds and are cleverly intertwined. It’s fun getting to know the Aquatos in particular and how certain folks from the original are related to new characters. It makes for a feeling of familiarity and togetherness, like the player is part of something bigger where everyone still has plenty of quirks.

The main campaign revolves around figuring out who is snitching within the organization. Which means chatting with people and using a Psychic (PSI) Portal of course, where Raz’s astral projection jumps into select minds to gather information and learn about their motivations. Way cool, I know! Dialogue options are smart and quirky even if they have no effect on the core narrative. Character interactions make the Motherlobe and surrounding areas feel alive, enticing all sorts of exploration that’s immensely rewarding. Figuring out the mysteries of someone’s thoughts. And gathering up the best kinds of collectibles.

As is evident with the description of the plot and character names, Double Fine is among the best in the industry at references, puns and double entendre use. This really is a highlight as little details go a long way to add up to something immeasurable. It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

For instance, health is called Mental Energy. Censors are brawler enemies that stamp out unwanted thoughts. Regrets are dangerous flying bugs carrying heavy kettlebells because they weigh people down. It features aptly named collectibles like physical manifestations of that person’s thoughts called Figments, Emotional Baggage that requires Raz to find a tag to comfort it or cute Half-a-Mind brains which need two lobes to make a whole. Instead of a fingerprint, one’s Thinkerprint is used for accessing areas.

It’s very fun noticing a small touch or chuckling at an enemy description, partly because it’s relatable. Double Fine lightly pokes fun while simultaneously acknowledging the seriousness of mental health. There’s a stylized feel throughout the entire project, like it’s tuned to feel uncanny yet familiar. The player uses an intern’s manual as a journal to track quests, skills or inventory. There’s so much care in Psychonauts 2, whether obvious or hidden, and it all contributes to the cohesiveness of its tone.

Mission structure is standard, then has multi-layered objectives within each story quest. There’s the main campaign trying to uncover the mole with its own set of requirements around that investigation. This takes Raz to mind locations such as the casino hospital of Hollis Forsythe, interim leader of the Psychonauts, and agent Compton Boole’s mental cook-off among others.

Then there’s optional tasks opened by talking with certain characters. A conniving intern convinces the player to take on a scavenger hunt, claiming it’s important agency business (hint: it kinda isn’t). Lili, Raz’s girlfriend and Zanotto’s daughter, asks for help in trying to help her father bounce back from his captivity. A set of interns need help boosting the signal of their pirate radio station. Then there’s the Aquato family side quests, a personal favorite because it shows more about Raz’s past. His father Augustus played a role late in Psychonauts, now we meet the full crew including his precious Nona who keeps reminding him of the family’s curse that they will die in water. Most end up tying back into the narrative in exciting ways.

All of these are really a great way to flex an improved movement system. Raz is a child acrobat by trade meaning he’s already an expert double jumper, ledge grabber and wall bouncer. Then there’s the Levitation power, which lifts Raz on top of a ball for him to move more quickly and get to greater heights. It’s floaty and a bit unwieldy, used as a psuedo-sprint button since there’s no dedicated button for speed. Platforming is generally solid, though I’d like a more controlled sprint mechanic. It can occasionally be difficult to know where Raz is landing when leaping, the sort of situation where an indicator could help. Especially among higher level challenges.

Even so, one of the highest compliments I can pay Psychonauts 2 is it’s more fun to move around and take the scenic route than use fast travel (which is a nice option to have here of course). There’s always something to collect or a character to find. A fun area to explore. This sort of love for traversal is a staple of the genre’s best experiences.

It wouldn’t be a video game about psychics without powers, of course! Certain “PSI-Powers” are carryovers from the original: The aforementioned Levitation technique. Telekinesis, the ability to throw objects. PSI Blast is a projectile energy beam. Pyrokinesis is, naturally, a big old fireball. And Clairvoyance allows Raz to see from another being’s perspective. This materializes what they think of him, and changes based on the person. Or animal. It can be quite amusing.

As he’s grown a few days since last game, Raz learns a handful of new abilities. Mental Connection is used to connect ideas, essentially grapple points, and pull the player towards them. Primarily a movement mechanic that allows for more vertical exploration plus a combat tactic where Raz to zip around, pull enemies or snag objects in mid-air. There’s also Time Bubble slowing anything in its path. Helpful during platforming to new places or fighting against quick opponents. Lastly there’s Projection where the player creates a separate paper version of Raz. This copy can open secret areas or serve as a much-needed distraction during battle. He’s also a master of one-liners.

Double Fine shows off clear innovation and creativity baked into environment and level design along the way. There’s four main open areas in Psychonauts 2 plus more than a dozen individual minds to tour. Almost all of them are memorable, especially in how they bend themes or blend them together. As Raz starts to learn his new powers in the second act, exploration really opens up. Notably into more vertical spaces. For example in the physical world, The Questionable Area is a bootleg theme park and natural attraction outside the Motherlobe which houses deposits of “Psitanium,” the game’s fictional element and main currency. It’s also where Raz’s family sets up shop. There’s a later game open area that ties into the game’s lore, featuring some of the earliest Psychonaut technology.

Jumping into a human consciousness is really where the artwork, color palette and innovation pick up. These are just big enough to enjoy collectible gathering and power experimentation, then have focused objectives to get done in order to progress the story. Without digging into spoilers, I’d like to highlight two of these mental environments to prove what makes this game so special.

As mentioned before, a woman named Forsythe is temporarily leading the Psychonauts while Zanotto is recovering. She’s also the intern coordinator, so Raz has to start his bureau education within her mental classroom. The other leaders are setting up a big casino mission, which Forsythe forbids any interns from joining. These savvy kids get the idea to, quite literally, “change her mind” by urging Raz to use Mental Connection. The player ends up tricking her into associating risk with success. Now she wants to gamble with the agency’s finances.

Forsythe was a medical professional before joining the Psychonauts, so her mental space starts as a run-of-the-mill hospital. Through collectibles, Raz learns that her mentor stole her seminal work. Once Raz changes her mind, her worldview shifts to a hospital casino hybrid where neon signs and bright lights take the place of a traditional sterilized look. The player has to unlock a high roller suite by figuring out puzzles and fighting their way through her psyche, which will stop her from gambling everything away. A roulette wheel accompanies the maternity ward. “Pillenko” is a pachislot machine with a pharmacy twist.

It’s an exceptional aesthetic with only a tinge of dark humor. Like when a snarky playing card says to Raz: “Sorry, I don’t talk to jokers.” The scenario also presents a myriad of questions: Is it smart to convince people to change their minds? What are the consequences? Will that impact who they are? Forever?

Separately, my favorite mind palace is called PSI King’s Sensorium. It’s a sensory overload of color and sensation set amidst the psychedelic backdrop of a music festival. It’s fully color-shaded, even Raz himself looks different. A truly bursting rainbow of shades and sounds galore. During the associated mission, the player has to work with a ball of light to set up an epic concert. A Feast of the Senses.

Problem is, the band and instruments are all missing. Each member represents one of the five senses, so the player drives a hippy van around an over-world map looking for the missing mates. At one point, the ball of light says some characters “like to get high.” Raz points to a mountaintop. “Oh you mean they go way up there?” And there’s long lines of people waiting for food in the world where the nose band member is located. Tongue-in-cheek references like this abound in Psychonauts 2, tickling the funny bone.

There’s mechanical and symbolic significance here amidst all this natural (and potentially chemical) beauty. First it’s the introduction of the Time Bubble power, representing how people should slow down and enjoy their surroundings. PSI King also suffers from Panic Attacks that manifest as especially brutal enemies. These ugly creatures are super fast, disorienting and downright ugly. And, of course, the culmination of Raz’s effort during this sequence has massive story implications. Part of the payoff is hearing the game’s best song.

For those that have played Psychonauts, PSI King’s Sensorium is definitely the Milkman Conspiracy of the sequel. Both of these minds show Double Fine’s genius, melding extraordinary location design with relevant themes, artwork and gameplay. This blissful concoction couldn’t happen anywhere except video games.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

Now, I have to address combat. The best way to describe it is serviceable, leaning towards solid. It’s certainly not the game’s strongest aspect, more a means to an end than a great time in the moment. Raz uses a psychic hand to slap enemies around, which can be upgraded for further combos or beefed up damage. There’s the PSI Blast ranged attack, perfect for defeating aerial opponents. That also has boosts to create additional projectiles or reduce cooldown. The player can dodge out of the way, even counter attack, though I found this whole process slightly slower than I’d like.

Then his other powers come into play, such as tethering with Mental Connection or burning an area with Pyrokinesis. The latter is a specialty of mine because it causes enemies to break off their current path and run around on fire. Problem is that hit feedback and damage indication are weak, plus the melee moves in particular lack a certain oomph present in better action games. I didn’t mind fighting, though at a certain point in the story I started to avoid conflict when in free roam spots.

Boss fights are far superior to individual combat encounters with fodder enemies. These were always surprising and had mechanics specific to a given area. One would require flinging objects at certain targets with Telekinesis, another asked the player to grapple around the arena in order to output damage. A couple were anticlimactic in the end. Which happens when there are this many, I suppose.

On the mechanical side, a key aspect to balance out platforming and combat is the inclusion of puzzles. They mainly integrate with movement to manifest in environmental puzzles, requiring the player to pilot Raz around areas to complete mini-goals before progressing. Connection thought clouds within a subject’s mind is a popular one. Back in PSI King’s Sensorium, connecting spotlights to prisms in order to make rainbow bridges. Another mind has the player riding a bowling ball around ramps and overpasses. There’s even an entire cooking competition sequence during which Raz is prepping the correct ingredients while being timed, hoping to craft that perfect dish.

Its smart combination of spacial and traditional puzzles are essential to making Psychonauts 2 so effective, many of them reflecting the current hardships or confusion within someone’s brain. It’s less about patching up issues and more about understanding. Winning little battles, then trying to at least continue on after conceding that solving doesn’t necessarily mean fixing.

Beyond its overall presentation technique, Easter Eggs and callbacks are icing on the cake. Which makes sense. The game is set mere days after the last one, as agents make sure characters such as Coach Oleander (a protagonist previously) and Dr. Loboto know when claiming they are changed people. Similar to something like Waterloo World in Psychonauts, there are over-worlds within certain mental spaces that connect to individual levels. The fast travel friend Oatmeal aka “Little Buddy” is present as well.

For those games that offer it, progression is an increasingly important system because it’s a primary reward loop. Good games are rewarding. The best ones respect a player’s time commitment. This is one area where Psychonauts is traditionally cumbersome, which is still the case in the sequel. Even more so with the introduction of a Pin customization system.

Overall, Raz has a Rank. This isn’t increased by experience points. Rather, it can move up a few different ways. The easiest is to collect 100 Figments or what’s called a PSI Challenge Marker, the latter of which is more hidden in harder-to-reach places. Each of those earns a single rank. The other way is by using a vending machine to combine two different items together: Nine PSI Cards, another collectible that’s easier to find, with one PSI Core that can be purchased with currency. That process creates a PSI Challenge Marker, which again bumps up the rank. Got all that?

I understand the desire to make collecting items meaningful. It’s just the whole combining process isn’t intuitive or streamlined. When the game has to constantly remind the player how to rank up, that tells me there’s one too many steps involved.

Then there’s Intern Credits used to upgrade individual PSI Powers. These are earned by completing tasks, ranking up or snagging certain items across the world. A very useful system that allows four powerful upgrades for each power. I maximized Levitation in order to vary my movement capabilities plus Pyrokinesis because, well, fire is always useful!

Adding even more complexity, flexibility and even pizazz are what’s called Pins, personalized options purchased strictly via collected Psitanium nuggets. Raz can have three equipped at any time. They are haphazardly categorized, a messy presentation that screams it was good in theory though thrown together in execution. The pins themselves are quite fun and malleable. It’s a smorgasbord of different choices. Some are cosmetic, like a classic dance for Raz’s idle animation. Many are practical including a ground pound for Levitation or gaining Mental Energy when grappling. Then there’s those that completely change how the game plays. Glass Cannon increases both incoming and outgoing damage. Time Warp makes a Time Bubble speed up instead of slow down.

There’s even a pin to gain the ability to pet animals. Why that isn’t on by default, I’ll never know!

This is all coordinated by agent Otto Mentallis, master engineer and gadget guy. He’s the brains of the team when it comes to tinkering and experimenting with mechanical objects. His Otto Matic vending machine sells all of these cores, items and pins. He even lets Raz borrow two gadgets: Thought Tuner offers access to new areas by finding “stray thought” grapple points. Otto-Shot Camera is a basic, effective photo mode. His lab also has a nice touch with the Hall of Brains, showing off the title’s myriad of financial backers. Like one big brain gumball machine, another perfect choice in any number of presentation decisions by Double Fine.

Looking at other options, namely those of the quality of life and accessibility variety, the studio thankfully puts a focus on these features. There’s a suggested control scheme that can be fully customized. A number of assist features from subtitle size, text clarity, colorblind considerations, no fall damage, invincibility and narrative combat mode which makes the player super powerful when fighting. There’s a content warning and mental health disclaimer after booting it up. Similar to the original, the Collective Unconscious allows access to prior mental locations then there’s a fast travel mechanic whether in big open spaces or within minds when revisiting them. You can tell Double Fine cares about its players, no matter their abilities.

Performance is consistent on current generation, noting that I played on Xbox Series X. Based on a chart shared by Double Fine ahead of launch, older consoles will run at 30 frames-per-second. Loading time is impressively fast which helps a ton during travel and post-game. It’s the type of game that lets its art and color carry it visually as opposed to outright resolution. Both high dynamic range (HDR) and variable refresh rate (VRR) are available on Xbox Series X|S while PlayStation 5 doesn’t offer these more advanced options. I’d say it will look and run well enough even last generation for most players other than the most picky, which probably have the new boxes or a gaming PC already.

I’d be remiss not to mention its soundtrack, full of jazzy tunes, punk anthems, background beats and even rock operas. The music is highlighted by Jack Black’s incredible psychedelic power ballad shown in a 2020 trailer here. There’s also expert use of sound effects, changing the sound of walking on different surfaces, blaring casino machines, bouncy boings as Raz levitates around plus squishy noises when poking throughout a brain world. Yet another example of the heightened attention to detail, this time on the sound engineering side.

Because it’s a character story, there’s a notable quality in its voice acting prowess. Richard Steven Horvitz shines as Raz. Nick Jameson doubles as Oleander and Loboto. Roger Craig Smith, Yuri Lowenthal and even Elijah Wood were recruited for select roles. Then of course, a Double Fine favorite, Jack Black himself makes his presence felt. This is a small sampling of the talented actors that make dialogue so engaging and deliver on the writing team’s intended humor.

I did have reservations about certain choices from Double Fine, as much as I adored the whole package of Psychonauts 2. Many might be considered nitpicks. There’s random two-dimensional platforming segments that seem to be there more for visual flare than mechanical enjoyment. This 2D angle pops up in a couple different minds, I could take it or leave it mainly because the mechanics are much more limited than anywhere else making Raz feel notably heavy.

While it offers certain features, I think it could do even more from both a cosmetic and game mode standpoint. There’s so much the team could do with outfits and areas. The player can pick which color ball is under Raz as he levitates, but can’t choose his look! There’s an Aquato circus area that’s way underutilized. It’s ripe for time trials, acrobatic challenges or even survival modes. I see big upside for an expansion even, especially adding new spots based on different people’s minds.

The game walks a fine line between helpful and distracting when it comes to text pop-ups and reminders. I counted a few times where two or three overlays littered the user interface, which was unexpected from a game this sleek. I know it’s trying to convey helpful information. This just isn’t as welcome in the middle of a tricky platforming section.

It’s hard not to stop everywhere and admire what the designers crammed into these locales. Design decisions like these make its world simultaneously bizarre and uniquely endearing. Double Fine can play with so much using these settings that blend the real with imaginary worlds.

Many games claim it, yet few of them succeed: There really is no experience quite like Psychonauts 2 out there. A masterful and refined sequel that builds on the original’s formula, it’s expanded to include an even richer cast of characters and the amazing areas within their respective minds. There’s not many complaints throughout and a whole lot of laughs until the end.

What surprised me most is where its story went, how well it includes so many special characters then comments on mental health without being heavy-handed. There are twists. Serious revelations. I felt for characters, especially when others try to make decisions for them. It’s a genuine, even if somewhat convoluted, narrative about family, relationships, what people do to try to help one another, the consequences of choice and how everyone has their own inner demons.

Psychonauts 2 occupies this open space in the industry as a fantastic action platformer not based on a furry mascot, cartoon character or Italian plumber. Its content is much more nuanced than standard adventure games, its environments more daring and jokes hit that much harder.

World detail is magnificent. Even when visiting places multiple times, which can be done during the campaign or end-game clean-up. In fact, I’d highly recommend sticking around after the finale because things change in reaction to what’s happened. Even after around 25 hours deep into my play-thru when I hit the ending, I didn’t want to stop playing. After the credits rolled I jumped back into levels multiple times, surprised to see they had changed and reacted to the state of its world.

Double Fine are masters of their craft, this is exactly where they should be and I’m thankful for it. They specialize in dual meaning, character modelling, hybrid themes and exceptional references. It’s easy to miss how much they pack into these areas which makes it that much more pleasing to revisit them. I adore so much about Psychonauts 2 that I’ll probably keep exploring well after this review, which is a testament to the high level of talent on display and the superb polish that makes this game shine.

Title: Psychonauts 2

Release Date: August 25th, 2021

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Backwards Compatible), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One. Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC). PC.

Recommendation: 100% recommended. An amazing modern adventure game boasting plenty of charm, a bit of darkness and wacky locations to explore. It keeps players entertained as they traverse through various minds to uncover mysteries surrounding the agency’s history, its enemies and Raz’s family dynamic. Essential playing as one of the best 3D platformers in the last couple generations.

Sources: Double Fine Productions Media Kit, Microsoft, Screenshots via Xbox Series X.

Disclaimer: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft/Xbox for coverage ahead of launch.

-Dom

It’s No Myth: The Forgotten City Will Be Remembered as Narrative Gold

Certain games transcend their genre, executing so well on a single vision that they cement a lasting legacy within the broader medium. Roman murder mystery The Forgotten City should be one such title, a masterclass in cause-and-effect storytelling, dialogue writing, time loop manipulation, artistic vision and rewarding player decision-making.

It’s a genius, hidden gem. Or more appropriately, a shiny piece of gold.

Developed by the aptly-named Modern Storyteller, a small team out of Australia, it has an intriguing backstory of its own. The title began as founder Nick Pearce’s mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a high quality quest-line in its own right that received a national Writers’ Guild award and attracted over 3 million downloads at the time.

Pearce and team have since crafted a full-blown release, the result being a crafty first-person narrative adventure driven by choice around themes of history, morality, mythology, philosophy and societal norms.

Right from the start, it’s enchanting and mysterious. The player character wakes up in present day along the River Tiber in Italy. Memory fuzzy, greeted solely by a non-playable character (NPC) at a campfire. This random woman hands you a flashlight, mentions nearby ruins then requests you search within for an explorer named Al Worth.

The Forgotten City is all about choice. The first is picking one of four “classes,” each with a bespoke attribute. Archaeologist is undoubtedly the strongest, a knowledgeable role that offers unique decision-making opportunities. Soldier has a gun, handy for brute force styles since weapons are banned in the city. Fugitive can move around more quickly while Amnesiac is heartier in cases of falling or taking damage.

It’s time to enter a rundown version of a long-lost underground civilization. There are no people, other than Roman statues encased in gold. Mostly just crumbled remains of deceased architecture. Al’s hanging corpse is dangling next to a letter in which he bemoans his time here, saying he relived the same day over and over until he went mad.

Then, like most good time travel stories, the handy wormhole appears. Yes, as a looping game, it’s certainly a popular trope in the space. Except here it’s one of the best implementations across the history of games. Shooting the player 2,000 years in the past, this is when things really picks up.

Its location is an exquisite underground Roman locale filled with a towering temple, arching aqueducts, various shops, downtrodden slums and murky caverns. Those familiar shimmering golden statues adorn the streets, marble columns dot the landscape, green vines snake up structures and gleaming villas stand tall in the blinding sunlight. Art direction is the real standout, successfully capturing an ancient backdrop straight out of history books.

Players are introduced to the general plot via character discussions upon entering this timeline. Local farmer Galerius introduces The Golden Rule, a single law dictating everyone’s existence here: If someone commits a crime, everyone dies. “The many shall suffer for the sins of the one.”

Leader and Magistrate Sentius then outlines the reason for the player’s visit. Someone is about to break this rule, which would quite literally devastate the community. He secretly explains how you got here: His reciting of a prayer to Proserpina, goddess of spring and renewal, created the wormhole. It has to be solved quickly. Resolving the crisis will create a time paradox to save the people here and leave the past behind for the player out of time.

Of course, deep down there’s a lot more to it. Suffice to say there’s important information hidden beneath the surface from a story standpoint plus physical locations with significant ramifications.

At its heart, The Forgotten City is a narrative puzzle game combined with robust lessons in history, mythology and philosophy. While there are light action sequences and environmental traversal elements, conversations are the true puzzles. The player must navigate relationships, deduce from clues, make key decisions then live or die with the consequences.

The fun part is how Modern Storyteller gets creative with the time mechanic towards this end, as the player retains inventory. Knowledge gleaned from prior visits carries over to future loops. Clues can be used to manipulate outcomes. It’s not forced, instead it feels organic which means it’s that much more rewarding.

The Forgotten City smartly eases the player into the world, learning tidbits from every dialogue choice then returning to characters to get even more after finding information elsewhere.

Narrative strength arises from well-written characters, intertwined relationships, events that trigger story beats plus mini-quests that tie back to the main campaign. There’s an important election taking place. The Magistrate’s daughter is missing. A local woman is poisoned, while a man wishes to commit suicide. There’s an armed intruder in the baths. A merchant is being harassed for his sexuality. One character is acting very strangely plus another is locked behind bars.

What caused these events? When did they happen, and can they be influenced? Which one of these will break The Golden Rule to trigger the god’s wrath? What counts as a sin in this older society that might not in modern times, or vice versa? These and more are the questions asked in The Forgotten City, and most times the player has a say in how they turn out.

It’s especially great how the setting and mystery setup allow for philosophizing on important topics like societal elements, general morality and who determines right versus wrong. It’s like a history lesson or mythology class. Except, unlike high school, learning here is disguised as fun because it supplements key narrative points. Learning what breaks The Golden Rule is as important as knowing how to walk a fine line around it.

Honestly, like any good media with philosophy as a theme, it presents as many questions as there are answers. There’s even a character that lives to debate who will help the player if they engage in spirited discussions on some of life’s biggest questions. Is there a way to judge people’s actions separate of the time and place in which they live? Are there sins that are always off limits? What about varying degrees of transgression, or cases of self-defense? The game presents questions around whether or not humanity is inherently good or evil to the core.

Around the mythological portions, Roman is the dominant variety of course. Yet there’s also a Greek and Egyptian character respectively, so each of these is represented. There’s discourse on how civilizations build on one another across history. Even though stories are adapted or names are changed, there’s a thru-line. What type of god imposes The Golden Rule? Can it be exposed for inherent contradictions, and will that help the player break the cycle? The Forgotten City decides these in its own way, especially for the most persistent of players.

While there are light action sequences and environmental traversal elements, conversations are the true puzzles. The player must navigate relationships, deduce from clues, make key decisions then live or die with the consequences.

In terms of structure, the handful of main quests are interconnected with side stories. Information from a mini-quest is often used towards achieving goals within the overarching narrative. Exploratory dialogue is recommended if not necessary. Figuring out the bigger picture. Finding common threads takes getting to know every character, their routine and underlying motivations. There are certain characters that help towards these ends. The aforementioned farmer Galerius can be sent on tasks. The kind hearted Vestal Priestess Equitia has a feeling about the true nature of this slightly off world, and asks the player to assist in uncovering its mystery.

Gameplay is standard first person walking, running or traversing when possible. There are times of light action, notably when equipped with a flashlight or bow. Thing is, the gameplay doesn’t have to be anything more than it already is. Simplicity works. It serves the overall concept well without being overly complicated. Very friendly to players of all skill or ability levels, accessible to many.

Exploration on foot is nearly always rewarded. Finding new information, written notes, spare denarii (money at the time) or environmental clues. Certain areas that might be accessed, either at that time or later in the game. There’s even zip-lines for added mobility! Perhaps not the most realistic world feature of that era, yet it helps with moving quickly when time is of the essence.

The minimal action elements revolve around the Golden Bow of Diana, which is more a means of movement than weapon as it can “gild” parts of surrounding areas, making them solid enough to support one’s weight. It’s the single item that drastically opens up a play-thru, offering access to areas only seen until that point. Like being able to scale a wall or walk on algae at the surface of water. Acquiring it requires witty decisions then a spectacular quest, the most action-heavy of all, taking place through an off limits part of the world. The feeling of freedom is breathtaking when returning to the open map, one of the best moments in a game full of memories.

On the weapon side, there are “enemies” in The Forgotten City. Nontraditional and sparse as they are. Like many things, they actually serve an important story purpose. Especially as it relates to one character. Shooting is pretty average. Using the reticle is essential. It gets the job done, albeit clumsily at times. There’s also a kicking mechanic during action sections that helps a bunch.

Now, nuance and creativity are the game’s major strengths. It first presents as a standard whodunit: Figure out who will commit the crime, report it and supposedly that’s all there is to it. Of course it isn’t, yet the way it reveals that and progresses its story is quite clever.

Certain games claim that choice matters when in practice outcomes are really limited. The Forgotten City is the real deal. Here, decisions are what determine everything. There are multiple ways to figure out its problems or traverse its world. Characters will refuse to talk if they are offended. Dialogue opens up if they are impressed. They even realize when people are playing them, turning on an instant. There’s differences depending on the order of events. People start to figure out what’s going on, like old Livia who speaks in code or former doctor Naevia in her locked away palace.

Within the pattern of speech, the game can even suggest lying. Certain circumstances benefit from it, even if playing a virtuous role because there are scoundrels that will take advantage of a passive player. Still, there’s always the downside that any single lie might cause one’s death thus forcing the god’s wrath.

There’s an ingenious hint system in the form of gossip via tavern owner Aurelia. Pay ten coin, hear rumblings within the community. This could trigger a new idea or reveal a side quest opportunity without even knowing it, rather than having to actively seek out discussions or written clues.

One significant downside of games relying on time loops is repetition. Can a developer make it so the player doesn’t have to do the same thing every time? Modern Storyteller offers a great solution. Right at the beginning of each loop, Galerius greets the player. For the sake of time, he can assist with completing tasks already figured out in previous loops. For instance, he’ll run to the local healer with the remedy for a certain affliction impacting a fellow resident. When there’s a time constraint, an NPC offering this kind of assistance is downright essential.

Speaking of that, the time loop system itself is flexible and inventive. There’s different ways to trigger it. Any crime committed, even by the player, will cause certain golden statues to come alive and wield arrows that take down the civilization. Separately, the default election result will automatically break The Golden Rule. Good news is the player can influence the outcome, thus extending a given cycle. What’s also nice is technically there’s no true failure state. The game even pops up a tip when trying to reload a save after making certain decisions, saying that it’s often beneficial to let things play out because of how the time loop operates. And I agree with that sentiment.

One subtle aspect that truly impressed was sound design. There are audio queues or dialogue hints when certain events happen around the map that help keep the timeline straight. A place of worship crumbles to the ground. A man leaps to his death. The god is angered by a sin, triggering a narrow escape to the wormhole to dive into the next loop. Characters talk with each other about random topics to the point where overhearing them can trigger a quest.

While often serious, there’s plenty of humor too. Sometimes dark, yet comedy nonetheless. Despite its ancient timeframe, the team sneaks in modern day trappings and language evolution which allows for creative jokes. Since the woman at the campfire is named Karen, there’s mention of memes. The player character can bring up surviving a pandemic in one chat. Having someone from the 21st century dropped into a situation like this allows writers to flex some really comical fourth-wall breaking.

The Forgotten City cleverly scatters breadcrumbs and leverages its cycle-based time mechanic to great effect, a masterful display of how words always have impact and characters will react, often strongly, to affectations.

Even the best of games like The Forgotten City aren’t without fault. Thing is, my main critiques are mostly at the fringes. General performance on current generation was steady at 60 frames-per-second as confirmed by tech analysis online, though it sounds like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles have inconsistencies in this department. It can hitch slightly for a second or two when loading between areas, even on Xbox Series X (and I assume PlayStation 5, haven’t tested). Artwork carries its look more than anything else in the visual department.

Like many games from smaller studios, unfortunately there are limited options in the settings menu. On the video side, there’s motion blur, gamma and thankfully field-of-view. No option for performance versus resolution, which is becoming more popular these days and I bet would be welcome on last generation consoles in particular.

It needs more accessibility features, period. Subtitles, text size and language changes are really the only in this category. Controller bindings are locked which means there’s no game pad button mapping options. It feels like an adventure game fit into the first-person controls, with odd bindings like jump as B and inventory on Y on an Xbox pad. Even having a couple different control setups would be fine. Full customization is preferred.

Animations can be jerky, especially when say chatting with a character or climbing up vines. Aiming the bow is flimsy, kind of expected for a title that isn’t focused on mechanical prowess. There’s a minimal bug that prevents equipping items without opening the inventory or menu, a minor annoyance especially during one of its sparse action sequences.

The city itself is a small enough area once learned that not having a map isn’t a major concern, though I could see some players asking for one. More importantly I wish it had better quest marker implementation. Maybe allow the player to set beacons or waypoints to remind of important action items. Highlighting a quest will sometimes place a static waypoint, it’s just not very flexible. Like I said, not major complaints.

With a lean towards choices and a variety of ways to figure out its biggest mysteries, all efforts in Modern Storyteller’s project lead to one of four different endings. The biggest of which is a true “canon” outcome, which happens after an intense finale amidst staggering revelations. There’s a major payoff to all the investigating and decision-making, culminating in an exceptional epilogue. The true nature of this underground locale pays off, and is wholly believable.

I love when games make the player feel smart, it’s one of the most satisfying parts of a well-made experience. Like they are clever enough to make sense of jumbled clues, misdirection and hidden intent. Especially when it comes to uncovering truths in a foreign setting. The Forgotten City cleverly scatters breadcrumbs and leverages its cycle-based time mechanic to great effect, a masterful display of how words always have impact and characters will react, often strongly, to affectations.
Authenticity and intent matters in these circumstances.

Emblematic of how rewarding it can be are the multiple times I thought a conversation was going nowhere so I stepped aside to search around or chat with other inhabitants then returned only to determine exactly what I needed to proceed where I wanted to go. It was up to me to break the cycle, to figure out what’s a sin under The Golden Rule and prevent people from being their own worst enemies.

An informal yet indicative measure of quality I’ll use is how many “wow” moments a game produces, especially narrative titles with more straightforward mechanics. The Forgotten City offered a few of those and then some, flooring me with its exquisite craft and impressing me with its constant ingenuity.

Title: The Forgotten City

Release Date: July 28th, 2021

Developer: Modern Storyteller

Publisher: Dear Villager

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch in Q3 2021.)

Recommendation: Highly recommended, even for those that aren’t history buffs, mythology aficionados or narrative game lovers. Especially so for folks that are. Everyone should play it, as soon as possible. It’s truly gold.

Sources: Dear Villager, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Review: Returnal’s Fresh Take on a Familiar Loop is Mostly a Great Time

Modern run-based games owe a great deal to arcade experiences of yesteryear. They are both traditionally frantic in their gameplay, feature engaging progression mechanics that may go away upon death and can be unapologetically difficult. Returnal is all of these things, flipping a modern spin on the best parts while also retaining others that should be kept in the past.

Housemarque is a Finland-based studio known for its arcade pedigree with beloved titles like Resogun and Nex Machina among others, though this is the first time it’s really flexed muscles in the purely third-person, bigger budget shooter genre. The team smartly borrows traditional roguelike elements where each session is unique in terms of weapons and power-ups, the player loses certain progress when they die and the game world transforms itself so that no playthru looks the same.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect. The player controls Selene Vassos, a Scout for fictional space exploration company Astra Corporation who crash lands on a planet called Atropos. Selene sets out initially to find a signal, learning in the process that she’s trapped within this seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s lonely, and harrowing. She somehow stumbles upon her own house within this world, then upon entering the view shifts to first-person in mini playable sections where the bulk of story is introduced via exploration.

Returnal is single-handedly one of the most engaging time-loop setups in the history of games, a psychological sci-fi thriller that uses infinite spawning on a distant planet expertly while slowly revealing how its story is much closer to home than it first presents. There’s three distinct acts across six biomes, the last of which unveils the “true” ending. While its presentation is staggered and jarring at times, that’s the nature of time-bending tales. I ended up adoring it. This works because its collectibles and cut scenes intrigue all along the way, making it feel like the player is learning about this unfortunate predicament and her own history at the same time as Selene.

Foreign world Atropos features the aforementioned playable areas and a scattering of history from a race Selene dubs Sentients. She lands in the Overgrown Ruins, a dreary yet gorgeous rain forest contrasted with bright flora and angry fauna. The game’s first act starts in this space, moves thru the Crimson Wastes desert then an imposing alien Derelict Citadel. Once the player beats the boss in a particular sub-segment, Returnal allows teleporting to the next biome which makes for better flexibility in subsequent tries. It’s a bit of much-needed restraint in an otherwise punishing ordeal.

Once the first act is complete, players transition to almost a remixed version of the first three locales. For instance, the fourth biome is called the Echoing Ruins, bearing a stark resemblance to the very first crash landing site. What’s great is the second act is essentially its own run entirely, as the player respawns here in the Echoing Ruins as opposed to way back at the beginning. This makes endgame tries feel manageable, significantly less dejecting when one fails.

An aspect I’d like to specifically praise in Returnal is its genius map implementation. It’s best-in-class, displaying a three dimensional mini-map on the heads up display then expanding to a more isometric view full of markers and indicators. It clearly marks optional routes, fast travel spots and certain types such as boss locations or particularly challenging fights. An incredible feature that I now wish to see in every game.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

In terms of mechanics and arsenal, it’s a familiar feel for quick, over-the-shoulder shooters. Selene begins each run with a low level pistol, then can replace that with guns that spawn from enemies or found in chests. Each has its own set of potential perks, Leech Rounds being my ideal because they can heal, plus an alternate fire mode that could be a number of different attacks. Grenade, powerful sniper shot, proximity mine etc. Weapon variety is solid, ranging from traditional automatic carbine to close-range shotgun that spouts goo all over the place. There’s rocket and grenade launches then more unique designs like the Dreadbound that has projectiles launching then returning automatically to the magazine. The aesthetic here is alien engineering fused with biological organisms, making for peculiar and effective feature sets.

Speaking of, Returnal boasts one of the most satisfying interactions: active reload. Gears of War popularized this tactic, whereby hitting a button within a certain window allows for instant reloading. It’s a little clumsier here, with the right trigger acting as the same button to shoot and reload. Plus the player can’t manually load their weapon, it only happens automatically when ammo runs out. This combined with alternate fire makes for rewarding engagements.

Movement is as important as ever in a game like this, and Returnal is clear that the player is invulnerable when dashing. I coined my mantra “Always Be Dashing,” spamming the circle button to shoot across arenas to avoid enemy fire. Part of the way thru, both a sword unlock and grappling hook really open up fighting and traversal capabilities plus promote more efficient exploration. There’s nothing quite like dodging, launching across a map using a grappling point and slicing an enemy into a spectacular burst of colorful bits.

Progression systems are layered in Returnal, which is what really determines run variety and impacts how much one is able to achieve in a given try. Items, unlocks and upgrades come in a multitude of forms, most tending to disappear when a run is over. Permanent unlocks include key story items, weapon traits, world collectibles plus a powerful material called Ether that cleanses chests or can be used to activate a machine that allows one respawn per area.

The player loses almost everything else upon failure. The currency called Obelites, required for fabrication for various items. Valuable Artifacts that offer benefits, such as increased weapon power or reduced alternate fire cooldown. A favorite of mine is the Phantom Limb, which offers a 10% chance to boost health when killing an enemy.

Its most unique mid-run upgrades are Parasites, squishy insects that visually attach to Selene’s suit. These provide one associated benefit then an associated debuff that makes play more difficult. These trade-offs can make or break a given segment. Does one gain better drops from enemies at the expense of melee damage? What about increasing health repair when long falls cause damage?

Returnal’s Malfunction system also prompts important choices. Chests or pick-up with a glowing purple aura are “Malignant” or “Spoiled,” which mean there’s a chance the player can become infected upon grabbing them. The probability of infection is clearly displayed, from Moderate to Very High. Malfunctions cause some detriment until a criterion is satisfied. These can be brutal, and the player may suffer from more than one at once. Decreased weapon output, lower health, taking damage when collecting items and many more can outright ruin even the best of attempts.

These along with mini-progression systems like Weapon Proficiency, basically increasing weapon drop level, and Adrenaline that builds while racking up kills without being hit are all the ways that the developers keep players on their toes and give that wonderful sensation that every single venture is different. Its systems open an infinite number of opportunities for both success and failure, especially towards endgame in the last two areas which are increasingly devastating. My strategy tended towards health regeneration, though I could see a high damage output or super high proficiency build working as well with the right gun configuration. This is also a good reason for replaying content.

While progressing thru Returnal, Selene encounters enemies of all shapes and brutalities. There’s bio-luminescent animals that can pounce from a distance, stationary turrets scattered about, hard-shelled crustaceans that barrage with missiles, robotic atrocities who snatch up the player and the eternally dreaded flying enemies, whether airborne fish, overgrown bats or incessant drones. These are constantly remixed throughout the biomes, with variants like frozen or malformed in later spots. The most terrible of foes is probably the Severed, a bipedal sentient species that will constantly close the gap, never allowing any respite. Their tactics are clever, unrelenting. Combine these together and that’s part of the reason why the game has a reputation for being difficult.

Boss fights in particular are spectacular, monumental affairs. They all have three phases, making ongoing survivability essential. Most occur in an open area, forcing the player to quickly decipher patterns and figure out the optimal damage parameters. Then there’s Nemesis, one of the most epic, memorable battles I’ve ever played. I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say its scale is tremendous.

Now. To address the elephant in the room. Does all of this make Returnal too difficult? Is it for everyone?

The answer is exceeding complex, and warrants an entirely separate discussion on its own.

No doubt its genre is challenging by nature, which is unavoidable. Losing progress in games is deflating. Starting over is painful. Certain times, Returnal feels unfair. I believe this stems from a handful of reasons: Lack of certain quality of life features, its reliance on luck when it comes to build quality, limited accessibility options and inconsistent stability. It’s not that the game is impossible, it’s that there are too many aspects that make it unfriendly to a subset of players.

In lieu of a traditional save system, Housemarque literally shows a pop up alert after starting the game informing to use PlayStation 5’s famously finicky Rest Mode. Why not just offer a mid-run save system? A way for people to tend to life matters or take a rest? This could even be incorporated into the game world and have lore implications, it doesn’t have to be an auto-save. Even Dark Souls has bonfires. Even Alien Isolation has save stations. There’s usually some example of saving in modern gaming.

There’s no difficulty setting or tuning allowed. Yet hardcore platformer Celeste or even last year’s excellent Hades are perfect examples where player choice in this context can work to everyone’s benefit. The former has an Assist Mode. The latter a God Mode. The rationale is offering these accessibility tweaks doesn’t impact players that don’t use them, it only broadens the audience of those that can play because of them.

The role of luck can’t be understated either. Randomness plays a major part in weapons, Parasites, room locations, enemy types and other temporary situations. Certain times, it just won’t go well. Others will fall into place beautifully. This is a byproduct of the decision to make a roguelike, just depends how well it’s balanced.

I understand the desire is to make a tricky, trying run-based game. There’s tension in knowing it could end at any moment. Yet that’s no longer generally practical, especially since attempts in Returnal last a couple hours on average. I had one go for a half dozen, crossing my fingers that the console wouldn’t update or crash when I stepped away to take a break.

These quality of life and accessibility considerations may not have been as important during the arcade days that inspired this genre, yet they should be accounted for now. It should allow for those that want the badge of honor associated with a marathon session while acknowledging those that balance real life.

Thing is, even with all that, I believe that many people can have a great time with Returnal if they are fine operating within these parameters. There’s the constant progression elements I discussed before, carrying over key abilities. The fast travel and teleporting opened by beating areas. Not to mention how player skill improves with each pass, learning tactics and forming strategies to make headway.

Returnal should absolutely be more flexible in its quality of life and accessibility settings. That doesn’t mean many players can’t build up to the point of victory.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect.

In terms of technology and performance, the title shows how it’s clearly one of the first developed specifically with the PlayStation 5 in mind. Its best feature is DualSense controller integration, with the best example of haptic feedback use to date. The game pad vibrates with each falling raindrop, or swerve of Selene’s ship upon entry to the atmosphere. It gives perfect directional feedback when items or foes are near. Returnal also uses the adaptive triggers in offering traditional shooting by pulling the left trigger halfway, then an alternative fire mode by squeezing it all the way. It’s way better in concept than execution, causing one to fumble in a tight spot and accidentally use the wrong shooting type. I swapped to a more standard customization within the first hour.

Graphical fidelity and general visual presentation is good, albeit not exceptional even at up-scaled 4K resolution. Art and environment work is superior. Textures can be rough and certain rooms are way too dark despite ray-tracing claims and lighting techniques. Its best moments are when enemy projectiles light up a space, resulting in a dazzling neon light show akin to an electronic music venue. Housemarque is a bunch of wizards when it comes to particle effects and destructibility. Performance is consistent throughout, that 60 frames per second shining in the most heated of battles.

There’s plenty of bottlenecks to deter from giving Returnal a go. The cost of a full price tag, knowing its lack of options, not being able to save, that feeling of desperation after getting this close to a win. I hear that. I still argue it’s worth an honest shot, and it’s one of the most surprising games for me this year because I was a skeptic going into my time with it. I was open to trying, and came away very much impressed.

When it comes to comparisons, I’d say it’s part Metroid, reminiscent of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells plus plays like a blend of the best third-person action games with bullet hell elements where traversal and strategy are key. Going into a fight unprepared has its ramifications.

After over 35 hours and a couple dozen deaths, I firmly believe that Housemarque’s latest is its best game to date. A most clever take on a genre filled with run-of-the-mill releases, though it suffers some of the same setbacks as well. During a good run, Returnal is sublime. When things go poorly, it’s terribly exhausting. Especially having to spend time in earlier biomes to power up in preparation of later areas.

This is inherent to the genre, in which Returnal is one of the best despite its few flaws. It has the ability to produce both completely stressful play sessions and the most blissful moments of accomplishment. The latter outweighs the former, every single loop of time.

Title: Returnal

Release Date: April 30th, 2021

Developer: Housemarque

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5

Recommendation: It’s an exquisite, well-designed roguelike that’s worth the price tag, though could desperately use a variety of modern options. Especially a save system, its most glaring omission that wouldn’t impact difficulty and would allow for a wider audience. It’s an essential early PlayStation 5 experience.

Sources: Screenshots from PlayStation 5, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Review: Outriders is Geared Up For Guilty Fun, When It Actually Works

It’s difficult to establish new brands in the games business, especially within the crowded looter shooter space. Outriders gets part of the way there with an addictive gameplay loop, masterful environment art plus flexibility in character and gear customization options. Even if it’s rough around the edges and often crashes, both figuratively and quite literally.

Developer People Can Fly, a team known for fast-paced shooters like Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement, crafted a campaign-based, 3rd person action game riddled with loot, rank-ups and abilities. It’s a twist on the deluge of online service games of the modern era, spinning it towards campaign instead of ongoing content. It often feels like a Mass Effect with even more gear to find and tweak. Memorable environmental design, a satisfying combat hook and narrative arc that builds momentum well in the later acts are among its best surprises. Where it suffers is a lack of polish, a slow beginning, cringe-worthy dialogue, various technical issues and inconsistent quality of life and accessibility offerings.

Ultimately, I’d compare Outriders more to the satisfying, greasy junk food devoured after a night out as opposed to any sort of fine dining experience. It has its moments, guilty as they are, and boasts features that competitors should have while lacking others that are genre staples. It often tries too hard to be edgy, distracting from the eloquence of certain mechanical choices. I’m skeptical of its staying power past a few weekends, as fun as those could be when it’s stable enough to play.

Fans of well-established shlooters like Destiny or Borderlands will be immediately familiar with its general conceit. At its core, Outriders is a sci-fi action game that leans on character builds, skill choices, intense combat, level progression and the never-ending desire to find that next piece of gear. There’s a lot to it, a monumental amount of work and balancing from a studio’s first foray into this space.

Story goes like this: Earth is dying because of climate change. Humanity decides to send a select amount of colonists to Enoch, a distant planet seemingly suited for life. Among them are the titular Outriders, a team of elite scouts that will arrive before everyone else to take stock of this new home. Thing is, Enoch isn’t actually that hospitable. An unexplained, deadly energy force dubbed the Anomaly makes life near unmanageable. When the Outriders try to warn the Enoch Colonization Authority (ECA), its leaders are in denial and send a separate team to assassinate all the Outriders.

The player character survives both this internal attack and exposure to the Anomaly itself, is shoved into cryostasis by ECA scientist Shira Gutmann and sleeps for over 30 years.

Once awakened, Enoch is a totally different place. Overrun by enemy factions in an endless war alongside disgusting monsters influenced by the Anomaly, including a set of humans with special powers called The Altered. Our Outrider, possessing these super human abilities as well, works with former friends and new allies to mitigate threats and salvage some semblance of normal life for everyone that survived this far.

And that’s where the player takes control, finding both Shira and fellow Outrider Jakub Dąbrowski embroiled in this conflict. The MacGuffin here is a mysterious signal being broadcast since at least that initial landing, thus the journey towards gear and glory commences. All of this is explained during a painfully slow introduction sequence, as the game takes way too long to get into the real action.

At this point the player faces a major choice: What class to pick? Outriders features four of them, all designed well enough yet sharing a lot of similar characteristics. Devastator is the in-your-face tank. Pyromancer is a balanced build based on, you guessed it, fire. Then there’s the sniping class in the Technomancer and its multitude of turrets. Finally, Trickster offers agile, hit-and-run techniques including a snappy teleport.

I’ve rolled a Trickster and Pyromancer, then learned about the other two via co-op or reading impressions. Even though the game is technically a shooter, its skill system is what truly makes it fun and engaging. Each character has a set of eight selectable skills, three of which can be active at a given time. Many of these apply certain status effects, for instance Burning for the Pyromancer or Slow for the Trickster.

What’s great about the skill design is they are viable in both solo and multiplayer modes, the latter of which really highlights combat versatility and synergies among classes. Trickster and Technomancer combine as a great team, teleporting and turrets in tandem. Devastator is powerful yet a bit more risky alone, and Pyromancer is an all-around quality pick. It’s the combinations that are necessary when facing high level combatants, notably during post-game.

Quick yet important caveat is there’s no regenerating health. The only way to heal is to fight. Each class has its own curative mechanic, all of which require some sort of damage dealt. While having to fight in order to stay alive might seem counterintuitive, it’s a genius decision. Outriders is closer to something like DOOM in how it rewards aggressive behavior. A frenetic action game masquerading as a cover shooter.

Naturally for a title of this nature, multiple layers of player progression coax people to stick around. First, there’s individual player level. Experience points here are gained by basically just playing anything, up to the Level 30 maximum per character. This provides points that can be invested into Class Trees, unlocking additional passive bonuses that range from basic to highly focused. Each character has three main “specializations” i.e. sub-classes. Decisions around them are important, mainly because there aren’t enough points to unlock everything in the broader tree.

Every skill point investment is meaningful, crafting toward specific builds. For instance there’s a Trickster path called Assassin that promotes weapon output and quick movement on the battlefield. While I’m not a fan of this sort of arbitrary limiting, I understand the design choice. It’s meant to encourage specialization and experimentation rather than becoming an all-around god. Thing is, many people like the power fantasy. Good news is that it doesn’t cost anything to re-spec or shift to a different branch.

Then there’s one of the best ideas Outriders has to offer in World Tiers, both a leveling and difficulty mechanic. This effectively sets the “meta” layer, impacting enemy power, loot drop level and the rate at which the best gear appears. It also determines the wearable item level cap, so a lower level character can’t wield a super-powerful gun until it reaches the corresponding tier.

There are fifteen World Tiers, each one increasing all of these requisites and rewarding with a random drop once a new level is achieved. The brilliance is how Outriders lets the player dictate difficulty by allowing changes on the fly. Having a tough time with a certain encounter? Bump it down temporarily. Thing is, there’s a slight catch. The game only doles out World Tier experience at the highest unlocked level, and dying resets part of that progress. My personal rule was if I failed once during a particular fight, I’d lower it by one until I finished that area. I love this sort of setting that can be adjusted immediately. It encourages more people to play, alleviates wasted time on challenging encounters and there are still plenty of meaningful prizes.

While having to fight in order to stay alive might seem counterintuitive, it’s a genius decision. Outriders is closer to something like DOOM in how it rewards aggressive behavior. A frenetic action game masquerading as a cover shooter.

Speaking of rewards, I’ve come this far without mentioning the most important part of the genre: LOOT!

Originating in role-playing games of yesteryear, gear and customization around it is now commonplace in many genres. Outriders is in a class where it’s the core design aspect: The player character starts with crummy weapons and armor, earns better loot throughout the game until they are powerful enough to take on the game’s most challenging content.

As always, there are varying degrees of quality: Common, Unusual, Rare, Epic and the coveted Legendary. All of them communicated visually by both how they look on the character and what color they show up as in one’s inventory. What’s nice is even if early gear is not pleasing to the eye, it’s still useful in a practical sense. Lower level items starting at the Rare category possess worthwhile perks, such as applying status effects, shortening skill cool downs or replenishing health after a kill.

The overall loot ramp-up is steady, if not slow, until the story opens up to where there are certain optional quest-lines. My first Epic reward came at around 5 hours, a Level 12 shotgun earned during a boss fight. Initial Legendary was a double fire machine gun called Amber Vault at Level 21, a random pull after numerous hours fighting hordes and insurgents. Upside is that certain missions actually allow the player to pick between three different rewards within the same rarity. Most times they are worthwhile, and it reduces the reliance on luck.

Aesthetically, a lot in Outriders isn’t really appealing unless it’s the best of the best. A mish-mash of post-apocalyptic junk and natural designs, a whole lot of bones and protrusions. Weapons are mostly standard military fare until the highest tier of Legendary designs start to look really unique, blending the Anomaly’s supernatural aura with parts from native creatures and elemental features. It looks like each Legendary has its own story of why it looks that way, a blend of Old Earth and New Enoch. And I appreciate the craftsmanship at the top end, even if I don’t love the artistic approach of “edgy and we know it.”

The best intrinsic system of Outriders might be its crafting, the method by which a player tunes its gear to enhance specific builds or shift towards a certain status effect type. This is done via interacting with crew member Dr. Abraham Zahedi, one of Enoch’s last remaining scientists. For both weapons and armor, he offers multiple functions: increase rarity, boost attributes, modify slots, change variant and even level it up if it’s lagging behind. These cost resources like Iron, Leather or Titanium, which are found in-game or from breaking down unneeded gear.

Modding is the most impactful and flexible part. Rare quality items have a single slot, while Epic and Legendary possess two. Crafting allows one of these to be changed to any other mod the player has unlocked, as long as they have the resources to afford it. Even high level mods are affordable. Once changed, this particular slot can then be adjusted to any other owned mod at any time.

There are three tiers of mods, each offering more unique bonuses and powerful build opportunities than the last. These precious items are unlocked by dismantling a piece of gear with it attached. Once that happens, that character can use it on any relevant gear. Forever. These aren’t consumables. Which means that even if gear isn’t used, it’s still useful.

To highlight perfectly why this particular crafting design is so smart in Outriders, a personal favorite Legendary that I’ve been leveling through endgame is Thunderbird. It dropped with the highest tier of lightning damage possible, which allowed me to add a mod with Anomaly blade attacks at the same time. Using attribute boosting, I was able to spec towards critical and close range damage. It shreds most enemies, especially if they rush.

That’s a basic overview of how gear works, though the point is that crafting is so important and multi-layered. With this amount of flexibility, the possibilities are staggering. Quite simply, crafting is easy and essential in Outriders and I wish every loot game leveraged its malleable approach to gear modification.

So how does an Outrider actually use all this sweet gear? Well, to kill baddies. Then receive more gear used to kill more baddies and so on, of course. It’s that standard hook the genre tries so desperately to capture, and Outriders truly excels in the moment-to-moment combat encounters even if its broader mission design could use freshening.

The best way to describe combat is crunchy. It most certainly earns that Mature rating, with explosions of gore and viscera galore. Guns feel good for a third-person shooter, and abilities supplement well. Automatic weapons in particular are very effective. Rifles and tactical semi auto variants are a bit trickier to use if not playing in cover as a Technomancer, since otherwise time is spent on the run. Shotguns predictably have a most satisfying punch, even if lacking range when fighting humans in cover.

Enemies fall into different broad categories: creatures of Enoch plagued by the Anomaly then humanoids, whether insurgents (exiles from the ECA) or fearsome late game foes called Ferals. There are also other Altered, classified as elites or bosses. Standard archetypes exist within these groups: Those that relentlessly follow players closely, others launch projectiles from a distance, snipers hide in cover and bombard with mortar attacks. And, the worst of the worst, flying insectoids and massive airborne birds that fight from the skies.

Visually, Outriders has a lot of striking designs especially for monsters. Thing is, the tactics employed here are mostly the same. Enemy density and intensity are turned to the max. They will swarm and try to overwhelm. Even mini-bosses will constantly hassle a player, bothering with Anomaly barrages or elemental bursts. This makes it hard to account for everything, even when playing on a team, until one learns to anticipate how enemies will act.

One core complaint is how Outriders increases challenge by boosting the level and amount of foes as opposed to providing any sort of mechanical complexity. Encounter design is lacking. This is fine early on, though I expected it to progress over the course of the campaign. A standard cadence will be enter an area, take down a horde, go through a passageway, fight another large group, pass through a blockade, beat up on a boss, collect reward. Expeditions during endgame have areas to secure, a slight wrinkle. In my hours playing, I haven’t seen anything more complex than “stand on a plate until the timer counts down.” The impact of this rote encounter layout is softened at least because of how satisfying the actual combat can be.

Another thing while I’m at it. My Outrider is this super human Anomaly machine, so how is it that I don’t have the ability to jump? All these cool powers and I’m tethered to the ground. A glaring omission in a game where skills are based around mobility.

There’s story and loot payoff plus plenty of endgame potential for those that can endure its rough edges, a valiant effort from People Can Fly that produces plenty of fun and frustration alike.

Ambitiously, People Can Fly sought to create a loot game within a complete campaign arc, featuring a definitive finale then leaving room for post-game for its most dedicated players. Which means its main missions are where the bulk of time is spent, since most realistically won’t play past the ending.

I admit I was skeptical whether they could achieve any meaningful story beats. Early game presents like standard sci-fi blockbuster, as humans fight with both each other and native creatures while trying to colonize an alien planet. It’s rough and often cliche, yet really started to pique my interest with the second act once it delves more into Enoch, its history and inhabitants.

Like, I know humans are often crappy to one another. We are territorial. A lack of resources in a foreign world would certainly create in-fighting. How about this new world? What about its history? What can we learn from it? Can humanity find a second chance? Happy to say that Outriders mostly delivers in the back half on both character moments and the overarching narrative. Even if the finale is a bit messy, I appreciate how it justifies the endgame setup.

The parallels with a franchise like Mass Effect carry over to character involvement, as personalities join the Outrider on the quest to fight the hordes and find this signal. There’s the aforementioned Zahedi, a future seer Channa, the stern outsider Bailey, gentle giant Tiago de la Luz and even an unexpected visitor that will remain a surprise. While they don’t actively participate in combat, there are dialogue sequences and each member serves a purpose within the roaming camp such as driver or merchant. It’s like a reverse Red Dead Redemption 2, promoting a sense that humanity could learn to work together on this faraway rock.

There’s way more world building than I ever anticipated, as Outriders features a massive journal with numerous entries on lore. Starting with what happened on Earth to result in deep space travel then moving onto Enoch and its various stories, factions, locales and enemies. While not nearly as robust, it reminds me of Destiny’s Grimoire collection because a lot of the cool stuff takes place before or outside the in-game campaign. It’s a nice touch, even if I wish there was more of it during cut scenes or spoken roles.

The actual presentation of its general narrative is rough, disjointed at times and notable for its inconsistent tone. Certain cut scenes just aren’t well-directed, with violent camera movement and jarring cuts. Thankfully there’s an option to turn off camera shake, which I highly recommend. Dialogue often borders on cringe, a combination of edgy lines and lackluster delivery. If you like cursing, you’ll bleeping love the writing in Outriders.

It’s curious, the art design seems to mimic the campaign movement. The first few areas of human civilization within cities and trenches are lackluster in a visual sense. It makes them confined, an odd feeling for this awe-inspiring alien planet. It’s like they never left Earth, a lot of browns and grays with nondescript locations. The further it goes, the more exceptional environment designs become. There’s stunning artwork once the squad visits snowy peaks and rumbling volcanoes, cult areas and ancient ruins, lush forests and foreign villages. Outriders turns into a sensory treat throughout the campaign, and somehow ends nowhere near where it started in terms of artistic effectiveness.

Unfortunately, what the game also reveals over time is a continually basic quest structure and tedious mission design. It starts as clicking on an area, moving through it while fighting hordes of enemies, then teleporting back to camp to try the next one. And never really changes. Even more beefy side quest-lines like beast hunts and bounties are the same setup with a named enemy boss target. Occasional side missions pay off differently, but getting there is wholly predictable. Combat flows in a similar way almost every time, just changes in enemy grouping. This is especially painful on subsequent characters which is the only way to try a new class.

That said, I want to praise Outriders for a multitude of other design aspects. The aforementioned World Tiers are exceptional. The way it integrates side quests with the main campaign is great, allowing for swift selection of either mission type within the game world. Being able to quickly mark all loot of a certain rarity leads to easy dismantling or selling. World destruction during combat is a beautiful thing, in particular where spots of cover can be destroyed. This leads to changes in a battlefield’s construction mid-fight, requiring more dynamic tactical choices.

For those into the cosmetic side of loot games, it has a decent enough character creator. Personally I like when a game offers limited yet different options, and that’s Outriders. There’s no sliders or jaw length or body type, it’s a limited set of player looks, hairstyles and skin tones. Then there’s visual options for banners, emotes and one’s truck. Most are earned via an accolade system, hitting certain milestones across categories like combat, class use and world progression will award new designs. It’s enough to feel personal without being overwhelming. While it could be riddled with future loot boxes, micro-transactions or cosmetics for real money, publisher Square Enix has said that won’t be the case.

Now that I’ve praised decisions, it’s only fair to highlight certain other design issues with Outriders. This is where it can be rough. As I alluded before, there are tons of jarring camera cuts. Gives a feeling of whiplash when just progressing through its campaign. There’s frequent, intermittent loading screens. Everywhere. Moving from areas. Transitioning to side quests. Trying to team up. Then, its fast travel system is annoyingly cumbersome. You can’t travel between regions unless you first move to the base camp of a given location. Which means something as simple as turning in a bounty takes up to three fast travel instances, each with its own loading screen. This is luckily fast enough on current generation consoles and PC, though suffers tremendously on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

In terms of actual performance, it’s mostly stable throughout solo gameplay. I didn’t notice frame-rate dips or chugging. It’s not the most beautiful game, though it has its moments more because of art direction than resolution crispness. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case while playing on a team. To go along with matchmaking issues I’ll mention soon, co-op play is filled with lag, odd animations and dropped frames. Oh, and turn off motion blur. Thank me later.

While the People Can Fly team provides a number of smart quality of life options, it’s lacking in other areas. If a game doesn’t offer a photo mode, which this one doesn’t, I’d prefer it offer the ability to turn off the heads up display (HUD) in a click. Blood spatter lingers on the screen even when a small bit of health is lost, which is especially disruptive since it stays outside of combat. Text is too small, even on the largest setting.

And now. The ugliest of all: Instability and utterly poor matchmaking.

For context, Outriders is an online-only game. Even when playing alone, it requires a connection to its servers. I’d imagine that’s because it stores character and loot information there as opposed to locally. One could debate the merits of that call, yet that’s how it is and we have to play under those rules.

I had mostly a pleasant solo experience, save for occasional crashes and the quality of life issues I noticed. It’s playing with others that’s near impossible right now. Matchmaking is, in a word, miserable. Teaming up with friends should be way easier than it is. It took 15 minutes of multiple tries just to join a game, and that’s on the same platform. Cross-platform play wasn’t fully available until yesterday, over a week after launch. And still, the same team up issues are present when trying to use a “game code” system that generates a unique identifier for each hosting instance.

Trying the “join a team” function is brutal and broken. I started using it for Expeditions, post-campaign higher tier challenges. Half of the time, it pairs me with one person running a random campaign mission. I’d even bet they have their party set to “open” and they don’t really want me there. Other times, it takes me to someone’s hub camp and they are standing there idly for what seems like eternity. It’s a rare case when it fills a whole team running the correct mission type. A more elegant solution would be a playlist where one can pick the enemy level, instead of matching into a single host’s instance.

Then there’s the general instability as it relates to hard crashing to the dashboard. I can’t count how many times Outriders has crashed now on my Xbox Series X. It often happens when at the character inventory screen or trying to swap skills. There’s also times it freezes during gameplay, notably boss fights, which is infuriating. The worst part? Apparently crashes can cause *full* inventory wipes. Players trying to log back in will find their characters without any gear. Talk about demoralizing. People Can Fly and Square Enix have been furiously updating the game with stability fixes, which I appreciate even if I won’t excuse it. The inventory bug is still present at the time of publishing, so I refuse to play again until that’s remedied.

For those at this point wondering about my experience with its endgame, it’s hard to give full impressions on something I haven’t finished. Not for lack of trying or desire, I really want to play more Outriders. It’s purely that I can’t due to the multitude of known issues. Connecting to teams is inconsistent. It will crash before, during or after an Expedition, never knowing what’s going to happen with my loot drops. Not to mention the threat of losing my entire inventory is enough for me to await a patch or two.

Really unfortunate, because the concept is sound. An Expedition is akin to a dungeon, a bespoke mission that really ramps up the enemy density and requires mild coordination to complete. Post-game foregoes the World Tier system, moves to a Challenge Tier concept where players run these timed missions at increasingly higher difficulties to rank up and earn a currency that can be used to either buy weapons or play new Expeditions. Once hitting the highest tier, it unlocks a final Expedition that’s supposed to be the pinnacle of play. I’d absolutely love to see this, especially because loot drops are quite generous. One day.

When it works, Outriders can be incredibly fun and a great time whether solo or squad. It’s like an awesome sci-fi tale meets looter, featuring frantic combat and honed character skills amidst stunning backdrops and during a narrative where individual people and a new world are both characters in their own ways. Then it fails to find a connection before signing in, puts the player in a co-op team that isn’t doing the desired activity or crashes a couple times in the same boss fight, and it’s the most disappointing experience possible.

Technical issues aside, I’ll remember as much about its clever mechanical systems as what happened in the later acts to crew members I grew to know and the secrets of Enoch, its culture, the Anomaly and its ferocious foes. There’s a point in the story where it reveals the actual situation on this distant planet, both in terms of its native landscape and humanity’s colonization efforts. It’s an effective twist.

Like all great loot games, Outriders excels when injecting those mini endorphin rushes, whether it’s succeeding at a particularly tricky fight or snagging that piece of gear with a great set of stats. It launched in a tough state, certain aspects like its crass tone and shaky presentation will be there forever while others can be fixed. There’s story and loot payoff plus plenty of endgame potential for those that can endure its unpolished current form. A valiant effort from People Can Fly that produces plenty of fun and frustration alike.

Title: Outriders

Release Date: April 1, 2021

Developer: People Can Fly

Publisher: Square Enix

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 5, Playstation 4, PC, Google Stadia.

Recommendation: For those into shlooters and 3rd person action games that don’t mind dealing with its edgy tone and technical hiccups, the meaty campaign of around 30 to 35 hours is well worth it. There’s a lot of loot to discover, builds to try, crafting to complete and a story that steadily improves in quality. Multiplayer and post-game should be played at one’s risk as its loop is plagued by inconsistent matchmaking, hard crashes and general connection issues.

Sources: Square Enix, Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

Review: Ghost of Tsushima is a Great, Vibrant Samurai Game That Colors Inside the Lines

An actual open world samurai game set in stunning, gritty and conflicted feudal Japan. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it.

Ghost of Tsushima is most certainly that game, even if not more. Perhaps it doesn’t have to transcend its genre convention since it does it so well. It’s gorgeous, vibrant and visibly pleasing, a solid action game combining sword combat, ranged capability and stealth tactics within a world worth exploring for tangible benefit and aesthetic luster. It’s that beautiful virtual painting where the brush firmly remains within predefined lines.

The newest project from Sony’s Sucker Punch Productions studio, it’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

It Starts With Honor

As suggested in its title, the game centers on the Japanese island of Tsushima in 1274 during the initial Mongolian invasion towards the mainland. Classic setup. The player controls Jin Sakai, a young warrior who might be the only samurai left after an amazing intro sequence fighting back against Mongols making landfall. Jin somehow survives an early duel with big baddie general Khotun Khan, fictional grandson of Genghis Khan, who captures Jin’s uncle and honorable protector Lord Shimura. Naturally, Jin sets out to rescue Lord Shimura, rid his homeland of the foreign threat and restore order to a struggling populace.

Even being as talented a fighter as he is, Jin can’t do it alone. The cast of characters he seeks out is somewhat predictable yet mostly likeable. He’s saved after his fight with Khan by Yuna, that ol’ skilled thief with a heart of gold. Lady Masako is the tough matriarch of a dismantled family. Sensei Ishikawa is a skilled archer dealing with the fallout of a rogue student. Norio the warrior monk strives to uphold a fallen sibling’s legacy and retake his stolen temple. In addition to their involvement in the main campaign, each of these has a set of quests which are some of the highlights of both character moments and mission designs. It’s like a simplified, historical version of Mass Effect 2: Gather a squad to take on the enemy.

And I can’t forget the best of them all. Those adorable sacred foxes!

Really though, the main character is the island of Tsushima itself. It’s hard to describe how stunningly gorgeous this game is with respect to art direction. A photographer’s nirvana. Sucker Punch’s art and environment teams deserve all the credit for what I believe carries the game. It entices people to explore and see what’s over that hill or around that bend. It’s beautiful in its aesthetic and overall direction. An exquisite use of color, shimmering in every regard, that allows for quiet moments on top of a hill writing a haiku to be as memorable as any moment of combat or story climax.

Natural lighting seeps through cracks in the treeline, revealing daybreak across a golden forest scattered with tall grass. Even the dreary areas offer natural beauty, mud soaking up dew from a nearby maple tree. The island and everything in Ghost of Tsushima provides that picturesque backdrop of what someone dreams feudal Japan looked like at its most beautiful and serene.

A key design choice by Sucker Punch that enhances the experience is its minimalist user interface (UI) and experience approach. There aren’t any traditional waypoints or navigation lines, the map isn’t littered with random icons. Instead, players pick a spot in the distance or a collectible type then swipe the touchpad to trigger Guiding Wind, a subtle, self-explanatory assistant that breezes toward the objective. There’s also a myriad of birds that will hint at locations, whether it be healing waters or pillars that hold vanity items. The lack of a UI taking up screen real estate, unless manually triggered or in combat, does well to disguise its true nature as a checklist style open world.

As stunning as its art and aesthetic, the game is nowhere near as dynamic as it seems or even similar games when it comes to secrets, events or pop-up missions. There are shrines to find, lighthouses to fire up, artifacts to read, even haikus to write. (Like, a lot of these things. A few too many.) Then the player will see the same type of Mongol group or bandit patrols lurking throughout each of the game’s three acts, having to save a hostage or clear a graveyard, which I ended up avoiding altogether about halfway through my 60 to 65 or so hours towards getting the Platinum trophy. Combine this with my critiques of mission structure a bit later, this proves Ghost of Tsushima has less character overall than it initially suggests.

It’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

Come To Know One’s True Nature

It wouldn’t be a major video game in 2020 without multiple types of upgrades and skills. There’s impressive flexibility in building Jin as a character, as he slowly adopts new techniques perhaps not as honorable as the straightforward samurai tactics taught by his uncle. Jin believes they are essential to defeating the Mongols, liable to fight disgracefully themselves.

Various systems combine to define one’s character: Armor selection, upgrade paths and a charm system offering unique spec opportunities. Every combat encounter or zone takeover contributes experience points to growing one’s legend, which signal’s Jin’s reputation as the Ghost.

Upgrade paths fall into a handful of categories: Samurai with multiple battle stances and damage buffs, Ghost with its stealth techniques and assassination tools then one’s gear like Jin’s katana and bow can be strengthened by vendors. This is where the game reveals its alignment most with stealth action titles like Assassin’s Creed or Dishonored because the coolest gear comes from playing as a Ghost with its bombs and poison, even if some on the island frown upon it. A personal favorite is the ability to stealth assassinate multiple foes at a time, like Batman in Arkham Knight or Talion in Shadow of Mordor.

Earning charms ends up being the most impactful of all because it’s how the player builds out Jin’s passive traits. Some are general, increase health or enhance melee ability. Others, especially late game, are much more specific. Arrows have a chance to poison opponents or return when missed. Parries and dodges are easier to perform. Increase the amount of upgrade materials gathered.

Throw in a ton of vanity items including hats, masks and armor dyes to accentuate Jin’s fashion, the downside of all this customization is that I was constantly swapping armor and charms based on my immediate situation. Often mid-activity. The ability to save custom loadouts and assign them via menu wheel would absolutely change the game for the better, saving a ton of downtime fumbling through menus to remember which items paired with a specific build.

Flowing from character options right into combat overview then mission design, this is certainly the core of a game meant to simulate being a samurai warrior. Early combat is far too simple, centered on the blade and fighting one or a handful of enemies at once ranging from Mongols, bandits then rogue “Straw Hat Ronin” swordsmen. As Jin grows his legend, he earns new stances to fight against different enemy classes. Flipping between them is essential. The best fighting happens after the introduction of throwables like kunai and smoke bombs, as it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

The glaring omission is the lack of a lock-on option. There should be one, no question. Not everyone has to use it, it could be something that the player turns off in the option menu. However it’s worth the upside from an accessibility standpoint. The camera in Ghost of Tsushima can be unwieldy, notably for newcomers and when enemies are flanking constantly. I really hope Sucker Punch adds this with a future patch.

Later game, Ghost and ranged attacks end up being more fun than the close quarters forced in the first act. Especially the use of a blowgun, introduced in the second act. Jin can use deadly poison or hallucinatory plants to confuse and enrage, which really creates additional opportunities to surprise attack. As much as the game keeps telling the player that they should fight honorably, there’s too much cool Ghost stuff to ignore.

Mission design even during campaign quests follows a somewhat ordinary trajectory. Talk to someone, go to a place, investigate said place, find tracks or an enemy, follow or trail, clear the area, return to original character. Side quests are the most egregious offenders, which was fine as I was getting my bearings then trended towards laborious the more I played. Sure this is distilling it to its most basic format, and there are some emotional and surprising stories that play out within this framework. It’s hard not to notice how predictable it becomes.

Fair word of warning to those that cringe at the thought of stealth missions: You will be tailing people in Ghost of Tsushima.

I’ll specifically shout out the epic battle sequences that happen a few times, often during major story culminations when going against a sizeable Mongol force. These are excellent as they open up opportunities to fight in a free-form manner, combining tools and ranged tactics with standard swordplay. There’s even some larger artillery that I won’t spoil because it’s a great time to experience firsthand.

The driving conflict behind these missions in Ghost of Tsushima is obviously fighting back against Khotun Khan and his Mongol army. The additional narrative layer is Jin’s ambition to free his people, no matter the cost, versus upholding an honorable samurai code as instilled by Lord Shimura and the militaristic Shogun from the Japanese mainland. As Jin befriends people and adapts his style, he creates a divide between himself and the traditionalists.

Thing is, this is really nothing new in video games or films from which it clearly draws inspiration. It’s unsurprising in both themes and execution. Local Japanese warrior defending the population from an invader. The honor code of the samurai versus trickery of the thief. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to interact with such a story. Sucker Punch wears its inspiration on its sleeve. There’s even a “Kurosawa” mode where one can play in grainy black-and-white in homage to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. While I’m not a samurai film expert, the story here feels more like it’s trying to replicate its inspiration rather than rising above it.

Plus, this struggle of honor actually reveals my main philosophical difficulty with Ghost of Tsushima. It’s constantly telling the player, sometimes blatantly, to not use stealth or trickery to defeat foes while at the same time offering the dopest abilities and gadgets in its Ghost path! The weather even becomes more stormy the more one plays as a Ghost, I mean c’mon. Characters are constantly challenging Jin’s honor, even using his notoriety against him by claiming he’s done thievish acts. Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

There are side stories and mini-quests, true to the open world action philosophy. Most are run-of-the-mill while a select few feature quieter, random emotional stories of people lost in the invasion. Still, the optional Mythic Tales are clearly the standout. There’s a musician in various locales singing stories of legendary techniques or armor sets in animated sequences complete with artwork, lore and storytelling. It’s really something, setting up multi-part quests that don’t actually reveal where the player must go. Instead, they hint using drawings of areas and make them figure it out. These culminate in tough duels with different types of characters, plus are the most rewarding of all secondary missions. They check all the boxes of what makes great content.

Truthfully, I found my absolute favorite part of Ghost of Tsushima was simply exploring the world. Reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild except not nearly as charming or mysterious. Uncovering parts of the map previously untraveled. Stumbling upon a landmark etched into the scenery. Unfortunately, there’s mixed results when it comes to reward structure (you know how much I praise games for rewarding players for their time). Often it’s an excuse for a great screenshot or mindful meditation rather than any tangible keepsake.

Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

Battle Unending

When taking stock of acting, voices and performances, which are so very important in a game where story is conveyed mostly through dialogue and cutscenes, there’s a layer of polish missing in Ghost of Tsushima. Acting is stilted, resulting in rigid story moments especially when it cuts to Jin speaking to non-playable characters (NPCs). It reminds me of older games where the characters just stand across from each other talking, with limited nuance or expression. Jin is stoic as it is, highlighted even more by these interactions.

There’s an unfortunate disconnect when it comes to dialogue depending on the setting. As I do with games of this nature set in Japan, I began using the Japanese vocal track with English subtitles. The lip-syncing was clearly off, bothersome right away. Which meant I had to change to English voiceover, much less authentic. Overall it’s serviceable, with no real standouts within performances or animations, and I wish I experienced the Japanese version.

In what’s thankfully a general push in the industry these days, Sucker Punch provides a decent menu of accessibility options. I noted the lack of a target lock-in during ground combat, though there is an auto-aim feature for using Jin’s bow. There are simplified controls, button hold toggles, visual indicators and controller vibration choices. It’s not the best in class like something along the lines of The Last of Us Part II, still very much appreciated.

The game’s photo mode is the true treat and acts to show off an already beautiful selection of locations. I ended my play session with over 200 shots saved. It features the standard options for color palettes and focus depth, it’s that it offers animated backgrounds, time-of-day changes, wind direction and even background music for the GIF-inclined folks. I spent more time in this mode trying to craft the perfect shot than any other game in recent memory besides Red Dead Redemption 2.

Changing my stance to take a step back, there’s a ton to like in Ghost of Tsushima between its explorable environments, character building and fluidity of combat. Its setting is magnificent. The project echoes Kurusawa movies and respects the historical time period, even if it pays homage without ever going as far as being a great samurai narrative.

In video game terms, there’s just way too much base-clearing and camp liberating. Random encounters that get stale when you’ve seen them all. Mission structure comparable to games of yesteryear. It’s just as much Far Cry as Assassin’s Creed. It’s the type of open world game set in feudal Japan that people have wanted from those kinds of series without challenging conventions established by them.

Sucker Punch’s latest, and I think best, fits nicely within a general modern day open world design mantra, and it’s a great one of those. Especially in its depiction of a 13th century Japanese setting. It’s just never more than that, unlike some of its more spectacular and memorable predecessors. Ghost of Tsushima will be remembered as the game that satisfies that enticing fantasy of being a powerful, vengeful samurai that develops new skills to combat an invading force. It falls just short of being an essential study in the space.

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s a really cool open-world, third-person action game set in a beautiful landscape with some smart features and challenging combat sequences. Exploration is a treat, as is taking screen-grabs of its incredibly artful environments. You won’t find innovation or risk-taking beyond its genre, much of its side content is repetitive and its interactions aren’t as dynamic as it should be. Ghost of Tsushima is still worth a play for collectors, photographers and feudal Japan enthusiasts alike (of which there are at least 2.4 million, as the game is the fastest-selling new property on PlayStation 4 to date.)

Sources: PlayStation Twitter, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Review: The Last of Us Part II is an Unforgiving, Relentless & Painful Masterpiece

Two important notes: First, a general content warning that The Last of Us Part II deals with disturbing, violent subject matter. Second, I’ll be intentionally spoiling two major plot points, one of which happens early then another halfway. I believe it’s impossible to write a full critique without discussing them. There will be no spoilers for events after the second act. Oh, and of course the first game will be spoiled in full.

Please check back later if you’d rather not know about the story. It’s best to experience the game first, unless you are extremely curious in which case I appreciate you trusting me with these topics. On to the review (which now includes a new photo gallery by the end)!

From the Beginning

Just like The Last of Us Part II is a difficult game to play, this was a tough piece to write.

Because even considering its bleak setting, unyielding violence, dark worldview and pacing inconsistencies, the game is a masterpiece backed by premier storytelling, environment, direction, acting and technical achievement. It’s one of the most important releases this generation, if not ever, plus among the most intense, heartbreaking stories ever told in the medium that still has me reeling days after its end.

Part II is the direct sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us, a phenomenal experience in its own right and the first recent new title from Sony’s Naughty Dog studio amidst entries in the Uncharted series. This one is again a third-person action-survival game which picks up five years after main characters Joel and Ellie made their harrowing journey across country. They attempted to find the Fireflies in hopes that Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps virus could help with a vaccine, only for Joel to pull Ellie away after finding out she would have to die to uncover a cure.

What begins innocently enough in a settlement in Jackson County, Wyoming in Part II morphs into a savage revenge tale that will forever change characters and relationships to the bitter end.

Gruff, father figure Joel and now 19-year old Ellie have just settled into their respective lives in Jackson, where the bustling of people is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the prior game. Ellie’s grown up with friends, notably a new love interest named Dina and Dina’s former boyfriend Jesse, all of which patrol the surrounding areas hunting for infected to keep the community safe. It feels almost normal, with Jackson home to adults, children and animals doing their parts to survive the post-apocalypse landscape.

The player begins controlling Ellie on a patrol route alongside Dina, as the two exchange flirts and witticisms, ignoring their brutal reality. Even as Ellie inherits Joel’s caution of getting close to someone at the risk of getting hurt, it’s clear to see the beginnings of intimacy. Naturally feeling each other out. Which is part of the masterful setup and a common theme in the game. Characters are real, we get to know them through interactions, dialogue and journal entries.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard. Snow falls gently from tree branches as the player bumps into them. Glass shatters with a smash as pieces fall naturally to the floor. Ellie’s gun silencer visually degrades the more she uses it. Limbs are strewn about when the pair fight their way through infected enemies. Each encounter or exploration section has its own examples, as if someone looked over every inch of the game to enhance it in a very specific way.

I keep thinking: It must take a considerable amount of effort to make animations look this effortless. So nuanced and smooth, approaching lifelike. Each precise movement taken into account. It must be painstaking. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog is a studio criticized for exceedingly tough work conditions with “crunch,” a term used to describe how many folks work long hours right up to release. My fear is that this is why the game’s tech is near unrivaled in the space. Still. I want to acknowledge the supreme talent, and there’s no place more evident than these areas.

Change of Perspective

It’s after Ellie and Dina share these special moments that the game cuts to a brand new character, an immensely important one: Abby. Athletic build and piercing gaze, she’s with a group of travelers right outside of Jackson. Hunting someone in the community. Her friend Owen tries to talk her out of a plan to hit an outpost to collect information, yet of course she departs anyway. The player takes control of this parallel story-line, rather than witnessing it through cutscenes, moving through the area this time as Abby. An early hint that the game isn’t what it seems.

Abby is soon overrun by infected, when suddenly we she meets two faces familiar to fans: Joel and his brother Tommy, out on patrol. The three barely escape, then rendezvous with Abby’s crew. All of which seem to know who Joel is. Before we know it, Abby’s shotgun shatters Joel’s kneecap and she’s picking up a golf club while towering over him. It’s the first of many gut-punches in the story, albeit telegraphed by the game’s marketing, seeing a beloved character on the flip side of torture. (Something he’s done countless times, as alluded in The Last of Us.)

After Ellie hears the shot, she arrives just in time to see Abby’s striking blow on Joel. He’s gone. Screaming and frantic, she vows to hunt them all down. The irony is Abby and friends spare Ellie’s life, along with Tommy’s, because they found their target. They achieved their goal.

Then Ellie’s warpath begins.

Part II moves to follow Ellie and Dina on their attempt to find Tommy, who is also seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, and hunt down each member of Abby’s team. These people are based in Seattle as part of the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a paramilitary organization controlling the city. The “Wolves.” These enemies are more specific than the generic hunters seen before, they use flanking tactics and are geared up for serious battle. They use dogs to sniff out the player, they call out to each other and scream in agony when a friend is found dead. It’s the kind of touch that somehow works, mainly because it’s used sparingly enough to not be redundant.

In one of the game’s highlights, the pair happen upon an open space area early in Seattle. The point is to find gas in order to kick off a generator that will open a door, yet there’s also optional buildings to find. One has a new weapon. Another an upgrade item. There’s puzzles with ladders or ropes, traversing vertically unlike the first game. It’s authentic because it feels like the characters would do this while stalking their prey, they wouldn’t know where the heck to go without context clues.

This sequence proves how scavenging is as good as ever. One of my favorite parts, scouring for written notes, hidden items or crafting parts. I’ve always said that reward structure is key in gaming. Part II certainly knows how to reward a player for spending time checking side areas and optional spots. Even if it’s not something tangible like an item, which it usually is, Naughty Dog showcases dazzling artwork or environmental design that bolsters the experience. The stories we learn indirectly from world items are just as significant as from dialogue or cut scenes. There’s more reward for exploring than simply the material.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard.

Beyond this, after run-ins with the Wolves and a new faction called the Seraphites, rendezvousing with Jesse (who sneaked out of Jackson to help Ellie and Dina) and finding shelter in a theater, there comes a point where the game telegraphs a show-down. The culmination of our efforts!

It’s not, of course. The screen goes black, and reveals its master plan.

It begins again, this time playing as Abby.

This here is the game’s main transformation, why its structure is so effective. What starts as a seemingly traditional linear narrative turns into the story of two women, both determined for vengeance, yet unclear which is truly the antagonist. Are both of them? Neither?

What follows is the foundation of Abby’s backstory starting with a flashback that lays the groundwork for why she sought vengeance on Joel. It’s a subversion of the highest degree, that moment where the player steps into the shoes of the exact person we think is the villain. I hate Abby in the first act. In the next, I become her. By the end, I respect her.

While the original game progressed through seasons, the sequel is told mainly only a few days. We see the same segments in time from Abby’s perspective right after Ellie’s. At first, I admittedly didn’t like this. The pacing felt off and I found it jarring. We had seen the climax, then returned to way before that moment.

The more I played as Abby, learned about her motivations and histories, saw her life in the WLF alongside the people she cares about, it’s reinforced that every person has their own reasons. I didn’t have to despise her. There’s never one side to a story, quite literally, despite what the game first presents. Her and lifelong friend Owen are figuring out their feelings. Abby’s family history is tragic. She isn’t only the psychotic torturer as depicted early in the game. Yet the irony is that’s still a part of her, and her friends view her differently from that moment forward.

Here’s another gut-punch: She may even be justified in killing Joel.

Abby’s personality traits are bolstered by the introduction of new characters. The WLF is currently at war with a group called the Seraphites, a religious sect dubbed the Scars by their opposition because of their initiation process whereby they cut the face of new members. These people are tight-knit, devout and prone to violence in the name of their prophet.

At a critical turning point, Abby is captured by the Seraphites then left to hang. She’s saved by young Lev, who is really there for his sister Yara, both of which are former Seraphites themselves. The three escape and move to tend to Yara’s wounds. They can’t do so without help. This is when Abby seeks out Owen at his aquarium sanctuary. The aforementioned Mel, a medic in the WLF and Owen’s current lover, needs supplies to amputate Yara’s arm. Abby is AWOL from the WLF yet still willing to risk everything to travel with Lev to the hospital, an act of selflessness to return the favor for him saving her life.

Reality is Cyclical

It’s here that both ends of her spectrum come into focus: She’s been training for years to get payback, then applies this “by any means” rationale to her friends as well. She will always be both of these things now, and her relationships shift accordingly.

The unending cycle of violence caused by seeking revenge is obviously a strong theme, yet just the beginning in Part II. It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Not just mentally. Tangible sacrifices like friendships and loved ones who may never look at you the same, even if they are part of the reason for the supposed justice. Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Without going too much further on individual story beats, as if it wasn’t obvious, so much of Part II is relationships. Forging new ones and losing others. Characters growing, struggling, fighting, protecting and risking life for each other. Dina and Ellie. Both of them with Jesse and Tommy. Abby and Owen. Owen and another WLF member Mel. Abby, Yara and Lev. Abby’s friends. Humans navigating the ruthless post-apocalyptic world.

There’s also sub-themes on the difficulties of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a character dealing with gender identity and stern religious beliefs infringing on personal choices. The concept that we can’t change what someone else has done. We can only control how we react to it.

Contributing to the effectiveness of the story and character moments is the incredibly talented cast of actors, comparable to a big budget movie. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are back as Joel and Ellie respectively, while newcomer to the series but industry veteran Laura Bailey slays, figuratively and literally, as Abby. Two Westworld alums Shannon Woodward (Dina) and Jeffrey Wright (WLF leader Isaac) plus video game voice actor Ashly Burch (Mel) all star. A truly stand-out role is Lev, acted by Ian Alexander from Netflix’s show The OA.

Combine this casting with Naughty Dog’s technology capabilities, I was awestruck. Dumbfounded that it was even feasible. Facial animations and character interactivity are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer technical mastery displayed is near unrivaled, whether it’s spectacle in the action sequences or specific in the intimate moments. The type of game that should, and will, be studied.

Then there’s the topic of representation, which I’d like to specifically shout out. The audience learned in The Last of Us: Left Behind expansion that Ellie is queer, which obviously continues here and is even more prominent in her blossoming attraction to Dina. Then, one of the new characters here is transgender and refuses to be controlled by a bigoted religion. While it’s part of what drives their motivations, it doesn’t need to be anything more than normal to the characters. The more representation in mainstream games, the better. Especially in this way.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

As tough as it is, since I could talk about narrative and characters all day, I’d like to move past story themes into other topics that round out this memorable experience.

Naturally, Part II builds on the mechanics, systems and enemy variety of the original. It’s not revolutionary in the third-person stealth action space, yet the improvements are meaningful especially when it comes to the dynamics of combat with Ellie and Abby having more rounded skill-sets than the burly Joel.

Weapons are traditional, mostly standard firearm and bow archetypes, plus improvised explosives like stun bombs and molotov cocktails made by characters scraping together supplies in true end-of-the-world fashion. A new favorite of mine is the trap mine, a proximity device which Ellie can place on the ground. I used it to both protect areas from flanking enemies or strategically cover a specific spot in the path of their patrol.

The cadence is familiar. Scavenging for supplies, crafting to gear up for a fight, sneaking around picking off enemies individually then scrambling when it all goes wrong. Both playable women are athletic and maneuverable, they can jump and go prone, which are way more substantial than they first seem. There’s the added element of new companions as well, similar to Ellie supporting Joel in the first. Character AI is helpful and will make their own moves, even help the player out of a jam.

The three main enemies are of course the infected, then human groups WLF and Seraphites. Certain infected have mutated into new types, namely the gas-cloud bursting Shamblers and others that blend more into the environment, which makes even facing a small group more demanding. Both groups of humans use call-outs and attack strategies, the WLF being more militaristic as Seraphites using creepy whistles to communicate. The WLF even uses dogs, which will guide their owners according to the player’s scent. This requires a tactical approach, especially on a harder difficulty. Finally, we even see certain major combat moments that align more with traditional boss fights.

There are spots where these myriad foes are in the same space, so the player can lure one into fighting another. A move of which I took full advantage, if not just to see the results. These are all effective in making encounters feel unique, even if in reality they aren’t. I’ll say there are some stretches where it feels like there’s maybe one or two more fights than needed, which slows pacing especially for those more akin to stealth tactics.

Speaking of, total stealth seems viable throughout the game. Part II provides the tools, like bows, silencers, bottles and improved take down abilities. There isn’t some mandate that each area must be clear before moving on to the next, which is great to have as an option.

For those more interested in fighting it out, combat is way more flexible than the first game even if it’s still not the most memorable feature. Ellie and Abby are more malleable and adaptable to their situations. Scavenging during fights. Dodging, an excellent new mechanic especially in up-close fights. Lying prone. Crawling under vehicles. Jumping over obstacles. Even running away as a last resort.

I’d like to specifically call out the melee combat, which is exceptionally crunchy and brutal in its feedback. Whether hand-to-hand or with melee weapons, it’s among the most effective and viscerally painful close quarters fighting I’ve felt in games. Naughty Dog made it somehow both satisfying and sickening, partially through the sounds of enemies struggling to survive.

Now, this may sound predictable. A lot of it is. Then there’s times where it subverts expectations, even within its more predictable framework. Quiet moments are interrupted by hidden foes. The player must defend oneself when least expected. Scares during seemingly calmer moments. Long stretches without any enemies, a foreboding dread that lingers between character conversations. This heightened the tension, proving that there’s really no safety in this reality.

Since it’s a video game in 2020, Part II features upgrades to be found and skills to be opened. What’s cool is both characters have their own weapon sets and skill trees, not to mention collectibles, all of which operate independently. Workbenches allow for weapon enhancements via parts collected in the world, a callback to The Last of Us. Animations are slick as Ellie attaches a new part then wipes down her rifle, though for the most part, this is all standard.

The system with the smartest implementation is ability upgrades. This time around, it’s all based on training manuals that the player must find throughout the world. Each manual starts a new skill tree, and there are a number of them for each main character: Crafting, Stealth, Precision, Explosives and the like. Every upgrade requires Supplements, a resource found by scouring mainly medical buildings or bathrooms.

This again goes back to my statement on rewarding players for their time and curiosity, an essential part of any great game. I don’t think it’s possible to fully unlock each path in a single play-through, I unlocked most but not all on each character, so it’s a meaningful choice each time. Would you rather be sneaky or guns blazing, if you can’t be both? Between this, supplies and rounding out collectible sets, the game makes exploring every area its own journey.

Look Towards the Light

Consistent with the best stressful horror experience, Part II isn’t all about tense stealth sections or intense combat sequences. What sets it apart is Naughty Dog successfully inserts levity to break up the sheer brutality of it all. Most notably via flashbacks, mini-games and character moments.

Honestly, its best moments are unexpected so I won’t go into much detail. Sprinkled throughout the main campaign are flashbacks to earlier times for both Ellie and Abby, featuring Joel and Abby’s family plus Owen respectively. With a museum and aquarium being the backdrop to some of the best interactions, we learn even more about relationships than we could possibly through dialogue or texts. Many of these lead directly to the present day situation.

There’s also quiet times during the story itself where the world seems to disappear except for those on screen. Ellie and Dina early on, Ellie and Jesse while they look for Tommy, Abby and Owen various times as the writers try to convey their complicated history, then Abby, Yara and Lev settling in after their big escape. The foundation of player knowledge is built just as much on these as during the action, bolstered of course by the sensational performances and design technology.

A common thread is how Joel teaches Ellie to play guitar, which was hinted in the first game towards the end of their trek. In Part II, Ellie is now a proficient strummer so Naughty Dog adds a mini-game with real chords and the ability to practice whenever the instrument is close by. This blends seamlessly with the game’s music again crafted by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, leveraging plucked string melodies, dramatic build-ups and even renditions of one-time popular songs that act as main themes for certain characters.

There’s new puzzle type sections, as opposed to the plodding ladder or dreaded wooden pallet variety in The Last of Us. Many of them center on rope throwing, swinging or climbing which is somehow way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, of the utmost importance: There are multiple times where the player can pet or play with a dog. I counted three, including two where fetch is totally an option. Game of the Year material level of pooch interaction.

This downtime is crucial. A game as bleak and relentless would be totally overwhelming if not for the opportunities to catch one’s breath. It’s also Naughty Dog’s craftsmanship on full showcase, the detail of the guitar strings or the intensity of someone’s stare. I can’t oversell how much detail is present, making these moments as warm and real as possible.

In terms of user experience, I commend the studio for its efforts on options and accessibility innovations. As written as part of its product page, Part II features more than 60 different options related to accessibility. It’s the best set of options I’ve ever seen. This covers areas like color modes, subtitles, full control mapping, button presses, assistance capabilities, visual aids, audio cues, motion sickness and help with navigating the play space. It took me a while to tweak these to my liking, which is how it should be. Anything that allows more people to enjoy it.

One feature in particular that I found useful is High Contrast Display, which simplifies the entire screen and highlights certain items in the world like players and collectibles while the background stays as plain as possible. I swapped to it occasionally to help locate a collectible or see what door I should open, so I can imagine how amazing it must be for someone who is color blind. It’s incredible.

I’m a big fan of minimalism in user interface design, so Part II is generally great in that regard. It has a simple heads-up display (HUD), which blends into the background unless in active combat or the player really wants to see it more. Essential for immersion, though there’s also the flexibility to make it larger and more prominent if that helps one enjoy the game.

On the performance and visual side, the game looks awe-inspiring albeit capped at 30 frames-per-second unfortunately. I never noticed any hitching or slowness playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, as it should be with that sort of restriction. Lighting is mind-blowing, especially as it reacts with foliage and grass. Snowy parts showcase both lighting and environmental reactions. And I’ve already gone on about character models, which are best-in-class. The least impressive part visually is probably the water areas, underwhelming and murky. No one’s perfect, after all.

The sheer number of areas and different environments is staggering. Even though all of them take place in a handful of cities, each is unique enough to stand out. The community feel of Jackson, the civil war torn Seattle plus multiple bespoke flashback sequences.

Oh. And its photo mode is great. In a new feature for this review, I’ve added a photo gallery with select shots. Highly recommend seeing for yourself!

It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Now, even a masterpiece isn’t perfect. Part II is no different. I’d still argue its imperfections detract less from the final product than other titles.

There’s a couple instances of uneven pacing, namely the shift into Abby’s portion which signals the start of the second act. It comes after that false kind of climax, a restart when the race felt like it was just getting good. Because Naughty Dog is establishing her identity plus the personalities of the ones around her and their way of life, giving insight into the WLF as more than enemies, it takes build-up.

Combine this with the flashbacks and time shifts, it can be confusing at first. Once the game returns to “Seattle Day One,” the same time frame as when Ellie starts to seek out Abby, I found my bearings. This manipulation is a tactic by the designers to dole out information on their terms, slowly revealing not just Abby’s backstory but also how Joel and Ellie progressed once they moved into Jackson, which was anything but a traditional father-daughter dynamic.

It’s not a short game by any means, especially for a single-player narrative experience. My campaign clocked in at nearly 32 hours. I’m a notoriously slow and meticulous player, looking for side areas and collectibles as much as I can. There’s no doubt it can be finished in 20 hours if mainlining the path. I wouldn’t advise that, and instead say deal with the pacing inconsistencies because the exploration is totally worth it.

It Was for Everything

Part II is intentionally dark. It can be disgusting. An unfathomable cycle of violence, notably moments that are forced rather than driven by player choice. I’ve heard criticisms it’s a borderline murder fantasy. I’d combat that by saying while it’s dark, the player has the option for stealth or escape. Plus, there’s the lighter moments I’ve spoken about that balance the persistent misery.

Briefly about the interpretation of key story beats and the ending, I left satisfied. I understand why the characters made their choices during the conclusion, especially Abby after getting to know her. I can only talk about it from my perspective, I thought Naughty Dog’s direction was wholly effective and justified.

The Last of Us Part II is difficult. Not in its challenge, in that way where I want to look away or don’t want to press the button because I know the outcome is brutal. It’s foreboding. Unforgiving. Disturbing. This is exactly what makes it brilliant. It doesn’t have to be fun or a distraction, games should be much more. Seeing someone’s descent, always hoping there’s the possibility of atonement.

Naughty Dog proves yet again why it’s one of the most respected studios in gaming, the level of polish and detail in Part II is near unbelievable. The team improved on weaker aspects of the first game such as combat mechanics while maintaining the survival and scavenging, the side stories and collectibles, the crafting and upgrades plus the narrative strength that defined it.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

Where the first was fighting infected and finding hope in desolation, then doing anything for the ones you love even if it means dooming others, the sequel is about the duality of humanity at its most desperate and broken. Some seek retaliation that they will never find. Others pull together with those closest to them, finding redemption in that togetherness. Many do both.

It can’t all be for nothing. It wasn’t, no matter how much it feels that way. Everything matters, especially the hurt. It’s the only way that we can appreciate the small, fleeting fragments of compassion.

Title: The Last of Us Part II

Release Date: June 19, 2020

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: If calling a game a “masterpiece” isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. The Last of Us Part II is an outright essential game, which will be remembered as such in future generations. It’s already hit 4 million copies sold within three days, the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever.

Sources: PlayStation Blog, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Review: Maneater is an Amusing, Fun Shark Game Even in its Shallow Depth

Sometimes, you know exactly what you are going to get after hearing a game’s pitch.

Maneater is that. One of those video games that relishes in being a video game, purely defined by that “ah ha” moment in the brainstorming phase: Play as a shark. Become powerful. Destroy everything. That’s about it.

Billed as an open world shark adventure with role-playing game mechanics by development team Tripwire Interactive, the core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

It’s framed as a ridiculous reality television show, itself dubbed the titular Maneater, that documents battles between humans and sea beasts. Like a deranged Shark Week on steroids. This particular show features the exploits of lifelong bayou shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc and his inexperienced, college-aged son Kyle.

Presentation and design philosophy is akin to a Crackdown or Sunset Overdrive, as over-the-top and exaggerated as possible. It never takes itself seriously. There’s the ever-present, sarcastic narrator voiced expertly by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell. Title splashes and hashtags fill the screen. Personally I enjoy the approach because it provides a parodist tone that perfectly parallels a game solely about munching and destroying everything in sight. I could see some viewing it as more annoying than entertaining, especially towards the end hearing the same lines numerous times.

Initial setup is as straightforward as they come: Scaly Pete captures a mother shark and kills her before trying to throw her newborn pup overboard to survive on its lonesome. Pete maims the baby shark in order to distinguish it when it gets older, then the pup gobbles his arm in the struggle, igniting a feud between the two that becomes the primary narrative driving the game towards its conclusion.

The player then takes control of that small shark. And it’s pissed.

What follows is, plain and simple, utter underwater destruction. Even some above ground. The point is to consume as many creatures and nutrients as possible to evolve from diminutive stature into a massive, legendary beast that’s powerful enough to confront Scaly Pete. There are cutscenes interspersed between each chapter that mostly delve into Pete’s familial relationships and his ambition to rid the sea of a mythical Megalodon because it killed his father. Really there’s not much story to be had, there’s no sub-plots. The backdrop is a standard revenge tale.

Jumping over to gameplay mechanics, I’ve always struggled with the physical act of playing water levels in games. And that’s because, honestly, they usually aren’t very good. Not for lack of trying. Especially for 3D where it’s extremely difficult to balance camera operation with input controls and account for variables of both depth and distance, plus the resistance of water on how a character moves. I don’t envy anyone who has to develop a game with one water area, let alone an entire world. So going into it, I was naturally skeptical.

Results here are mixed, yet I’m happy to report it’s on the positive end of the spectrum. I judge this by evaluating swimming controls and camera maneuverability. Maneater does well enough with swimming and movement, even if it takes longer than it should to get the hang of it. There are multiple options for controller layouts, always a plus. Moving and turning is smooth and manageable. There’s a “chomp” attack button that bites, a burst to gain speed, an evasive dodge and even a tail-whip input. Tripwire Interactive’s designers and animators gave a cool suite of movement tech to the shark, which only improve with future upgrades.

Sadly, camera control is inconsistent and finicky. Moving below the shark to line up jumps to grab collectibles above sea level proves frustrating. When descending into pipes or cave areas, the camera bumps up against geometry making for wonky viewing angles. Perspective is especially difficult when trying to prioritize enemies during fights with multiple foes at once. The game allows a sort of soft lock-on mechanic that snaps to enemies, which is both necessary and disorienting. I tend to weigh camera quality high on my list of priorities because it’s integral to my enjoyment, and I believe the player should feel in control. Especially in a power fantasy.

The core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

Speaking of integral, the whole idea of Maneater is that it includes role-playing game (RPG) elements. Which means customization, skills and upgrade paths to evolve one’s shark “beyond what nature intended.” This is done via an Evolution system, where every kill or collectible provides experience points and nutrients which the player can invest in growing the size and base statistics of the shark then decide on a handful of different ability types.

Traditional stats include mass, health, defense, damage and speed which increase incrementally as the shark matures then can be influenced by equipping gear. There are five body parts on which this gear can be equipped: jaw, head, fin, tail then body. All of these provide buffs or varying abilities. The last of which even provides a unique ultimate ability, which is a pleasant surprise.

Gear falls into one of three sets: Bio-Electric (Lighting), Shadow (Poison) and Bone (Durability). These are all pretty self-explanatory, and it’s fun to play around while adjusting builds. For instance, Bone is uber strong against boats and humans while Shadow provides speed benefits, poison attacks and can heal when biting enemies. Wearing multiple pieces of the same set increase the benefits. There are also upgrade paths for these that require investing nutrients and mutagens, which come from either winning combat encounters or finding stashes throughout the world.

I’m impressed by the attention to detail and the flexibility to mix-and-match items. Plus, these choices actually change how the character looks, the way it dodges plus other movement animations. Each is unique to that set of gear. Which means that your shark can look cool while also having sweet abilities, which is obviously the true endgame of any RPG.

Even beyond the gear slots, there’s three additional “organ” options for further customization. These provide more passive buffs, like acquiring more nutrients and health per enemy eaten or being able to breath out of water for longer. Using this in combination with gear types provided even more opportunities for a particular player build. It gave me a chance to be strong against boats while also gaining health on kill, the latter of which is something I often utilize when given the chance.

Overall it’s really an impressive, ambitious gear and upgrade system with impactful results. Thing is: It’s the implementation where I have qualms.

Unfortunately, Maneater isn’t forthright in explaining how it all works or how to acquire upgrades for these slots. It shows the screen once and provides a brief tutorial. Then it’s on the player to figure out where to find them. Certain upgrades are via side activities or clearing a given area. Others are snagged via the bounty system, which I’ll address soon. Even more are directly tied to collectibles, which is my least favorite because it feels like rewarding the most banal of content. I don’t love the ambiguity or pushing towards busy work, though I understand it in context because the game doesn’t really have too many different tasks to complete.

Subsequently there’s the actual equipping. Swapping between anything at all requires the player to be at a grotto, a sort of home base in each of the game’s seven regions. This means there’s zero flexibility to change tactics on the fly, which is especially frustrating given the free flowing nature of moving through an area and facing different enemies. Having to both leave combat and wait for a loading screen before being able to change gear is way too limiting. Please games, let us change in action!

Alright. I’ve gone this far and haven’t talked about the shark’s favorite part: Combat.

Fighting is for all intents and purposes the point of the game. It’s the means by which all forms of progression happen, it enables most upgrades and provides the core fun factor that all games must have. Not all fish are antagonistic, but those that are can be especially fearsome.

Combat consists of chomping, dodging, tail-whipping and strategically timing attacks when an enemy is vulnerable which is signaled by it changing to a “highlighted” yellow state. When it works well, it’s crunchy and visceral with the most amazing sound design. Fantastic audio effects, noises that fish make while struggling or shaking loose, crunching wood when boats are cleaved in half, loud splashes when breaching the tide and even human screams pleadings for mercy combine to tell the player that they are really doing well as a shark.

There’s some good, smart creature variety in Maneater that really fills out each section. The swampy bayou early on has alligators and catfish. Later game in more wide open oceanic areas, it’s seals, mahi mahi, barracudas, quick species of sharks and even gigantic whales.

What’s tough is again, related to camera and lock-ons which becomes immensely frustrating when being attacked by multiple enemies especially of different types. It’s imprecise and jarring. Bites occasionally don’t land. Enemies look vulnerable then grab you despite their state. It pretends to be more tactical than it is, as in many cases I ended up randomly whipping my tail or attempting chomps until I dealt damage or grabbed a fish to thrash the life out of it. The ambition of combat is well above its execution, most notably against higher level foes and apex predators that guard each region.

Looping back to progression and pacing, the “campaign” in Maneater is dictated by achieving various tasks in a given area. Thing is, those tasks aren’t that various in practice. It’s mostly: Eat things. Chomp some chunky humans or a specific species of fish. Terrorize a region enough so that bounty hunters show up. Complete hunts against nasty apex predators. Reach a certain level of evolution, find the next grotto and move on. There are a couple areas with official boss encounters, mainly used for story progression and with a similar mechanic each time. Even the final boss is an iteration of something the player has already experienced.

Missions and quests aren’t very inspired, if you could even call them as such. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much in the way of variety when you play as a single-minded shark that eats everything in its quest for revenge. I would have liked perhaps some sort of puzzles or more intricate challenges to achieve, as opposed to merely “kill 10 of (insert species)” then “beat this mini-boss.”

It’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

A primary side activity and a way to acquire upgrades is its Bounty System of ten increasingly more difficult shark hunters. Picture a combination of the wanted level from a Grand Theft Auto with the nemesis system Shadow of Mordor, except for the ocean and not nearly as robust. It uses an Infamy rating which ramps up when the shark attacks a certain number of humans then a handful of boats that show up who try to mow down the player with assault weapons, explosives or underwater divers.

Problem is, being hunted is brutal and relentless. It doesn’t stop until the player runs away. And the hunters are powerful, often of a higher level than the shark and there are dozens of them. This is where I’d prefer different levels of difficulty, because even when I had the shark at its most powerful, the bounty hunters would still be overwhelming. Sure there’s no major consequences to dying from what I can tell, it’s just the annoyance of having to respawn after waiting through tiring load times.

Tying into narrative and overall world progression is the process of leveling up. This felt somewhat out of balance. Early game, the next area is gated since I had to evolve to become a “teenager,” which meant grinding for experience points. Then during the second act, it felt way too generous with experience to the point I became over-leveled for base enemies very quickly. Perhaps this is by design in hoping players would like being powerful. For me, this ends up feeling like there’s less incentive then to partake in side activities or go off fighting optional enemies.

With respect to game length, it took around 20 hours to get 100% of everything. Could easily be a 12-15 hour playtime, if not less, depending on one’s proclivity to optional activities and tolerance for collectibles.

Flipping back to tone and world-building, the game’s lighthearted, satirical nature carries through to environmental touches. There are seven regions with names like Fawtick Bayou with its swampy aura, Sapphire Bay resort town and Dead Horse Lake with its radioactive power plant. I really liked the personality of each spot, plus the fun use of each environment.

Golf courses with water where the shark can swim. Underground pipes in the industrial energy sector. Communities with swimming pools that allowed for bouncing around and scaring residents. Everything is built to cater the utmost destruction, and also to make sure that there’s always some body of water within reach. Going further, there’s many destructible items from boats to parts of scenery.

For the explorers and completionists, there’s a fair amount of collectibles: Funny landmarks, license plates, nutrient caches. The good news is completing these earns rewards, as noted before. It’s also fun to see all the clever landmarks throughout the world. There’s an underwater parking lot where the mob hides those with loose lips. Variety of underwater artwork. There’s even a replica of the Titanic, a mysterious UFO and fake Stonehenge. I love when developers put these kinds of touches in their games, it makes collecting reward both tangible and enjoyable.

Briefly touching on performance before I wrap, it’s fairly inconsistent. Frame rate dips during scenes of frantic action, making combat that much more difficult. There’s often loading screens or hitches between areas, even right before a cutscene which totally kills momentum. Loading times overall are way too long and that’s playing off the internal hard drive of the Xbox One X. Experienced a couple hard crashes, even after the day one patch. It’s a small development team and I’m not very strict when it comes to performance, I just have to report this since no one wants to lose progress and I’d prefer not to sit through that many loading screens.

Taking Maneater as a whole, it’s a fun game with a clear intention. It suffers from blemishes and a lack of depth in cases, such as quest design and narrative strength.

The Tripwire Interactive team doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, which is fine for a team of this size however it also limits the potential upside of its game. It’s unfair to compare it with open world RPGs made by larger teams, it’s just I wish there was more to this particular one than its rudimentary mission structure and lack of different types of content.

Truly, it’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

Which is why this game works as a guilty pleasure. Just don’t expect it to be much more.

Title: Maneater

Release Date: May 22, 2020

Developer: Tripwire Interactive LLC

Publisher: Tripwire Interactive LLC, Deep Silver

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch TBA).

Recommendation: Water my final thoughts? I know there aren’t many, so it’s got to be among the best shark games out there. I haven’t played anything quite like it. It’s a fun, shallow and straightforward romp to occupy a weekend or so. Might be best on sale down the line.

Sources: Deep Silver, Tripwire Interactive LLC.

-Dom