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

Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an Essential, Extraordinary Sequel

It’s impressive when the follow-up to a great game in a new franchise transcends every standard set by the original.

Despite my exceedingly lofty expectations, Ori and the Will of the Wisps did just that.

The sequel to 2015’s Xbox darling Ori and the Blind Forest is a special experience for plenty of the same reasons. Its platforming prowess, beautiful art direction and heartwarming soundtrack. And now, add more to the list: Snappy combat, friendly characters, a better sense of progression and an entire quest system that has both tangible and emotional payoffs. While its overall story is predictable and not every new feature is created equal, Will of the Wisps is the type of memorable, instant classic that defines the last year of a console generation.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio. There’s even elements of town-building and garden growing, allowing for progression outside of any skill tree or upgrade path. All of these enhance the experience without detracting from what made the original special: narrative, movement and aesthetic.

There’s so much new to cover, it’s tough to know where to start.

Let’s begin right after the events of Blind Forest, to set the story in motion. The playable character is again a whimsical forest spirit named Ori, who alongside mother figure Naru and long-legged buddy Gumo nurture an egg then hatch an owlet named Ku. As the young owl grows, she literally wants to spread her wings. With the help of her mother’s feather, Ku takes flight with Ori along for the ride.

All is well until a nasty storm separates the friends in a new land called Niwen. The first act is spent searching for Ku. There’s also a broader narrative about a forest willow perishing due to the spread of decay in this new land, scattering ghostly “wisps” throughout each locale that Ori must collect. It’s really a means by which the development team can show off how beautiful they can make different areas, and build more and more challenging platforming elements as the story progresses. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll leave it here.

Part of what makes Will of the Wisps a broader, epic adventure is the expanded cast of characters. Some are merchants. Others offer quests. A couple are there for comic relief. There’s Tokk the birdlike wanderer. The adorable Moki species, who look like lemurs and talk in cute phrases. Lupo, a map-making insect. Opher, the well-read weapon master baboon. A giant toad guardian named Kwolok. Wise old badger slash gardener Tuley. Grom, the strong, grizzled builder and town leader. Ori has help this time, and it feels more grand when others are at stake.

The standout element of this Xbox Game Studios production is, of course, its mechanics. The movement is familiar. Ori is light and quick, dashing around the forest in search of a lost friend. What stands out immediately is: Combat! Where the original was generally about traversal, Will of the Wisps applies a healthy dose of fighting action akin to a Hollow Knight or Guacamelee!

It totally changes the game.

What starts with a simple torch turns into a selection of “Spirit” weapons, as the player amasses everything from a Spirit Edge sword to the fiery Blaze blast, from a Spirit Arc bow to the Sentry turret. Which is actually *not* a turret. It’s really a butterfly. So that’s right, one might call it bullets with butterfly wings.

These map to the face buttons X, Y and B so one could have up to three equipped at a time. Ori faces various hostile forest creatures on which to use this arsenal, from rambunctious dung beetles to buzzing “skeetos.” Fighting is surprisingly and satisfyingly snappy. There’s even boss fights with bespoke mechanics and damage phases, such as an early game battle against a ravenous, gargantuan wolf.

The genius of these spirit weapons is they aren’t strictly combative. There’s all sorts of applications, from environmental puzzles to advanced movement capabilities. Fire does damage over time and can destroy wooden barriers. Sniping a target will open a new pathway. The team at Moon Studios didn’t just introduce combat for the sake of it, they did so to make the player more capable in Will of the Wisps for platforming too. Thus making it that much more fun.

Speaking of movement, it’s even more of a treat here than in Blind Forest. The player earns abilities much more rapidly in the sequel. Namely, one that I maintain every game should have, and that’s a double jump (which can eventually become a triple jump because who cares just keep giving me jumps). There’s Bash, which allows launching off enemies and projectiles. Dash, which is self-explanatory. Wall climbing. Feather parachuting. Shoot, even a grappling hook! It’s like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Rayman except way cuter. A smorgasbord of sweet movement options.

These combine to make even the most casual players feel like a competent platforming artist if not a novice speed-runner. There’s always a way to move through an area, or bail oneself out of a jam. Not only that, they blend seamlessly with spirit weapons. Light Burst, which is a fireball, combines with Bash to allow nifty traversal options that are only now fully realized with this new level of flexibility. Burrow has Ori cutting through sand then launching out to reach new heights or smash into baddies.

For all its fancy bells and whistles, Will of the Wisps is at its heart still a speedy side-scroller. It has everything a lover of the genre could want. Which is essential, because it ramps up the difficulty as it progresses and throws different scenarios together within increasingly crowded areas. That’s part of the charm.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio.

On the topic of platforming, the team gets creative in how they implement environmental hazards and puzzle applications. Areas have their own aesthetics of course, though with that comes fun variation in individual elements.

One destination has a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Water Temple feel, as Ori must shift sea level to traverse different vertical slices. Another has the player shooting targets with Spirit Arc to create different pathways. There’s a spooky zone requiring lightning bugs to guide in darkness. Fire causes upward wind drafts upon which Ori can soar.

There’s even later areas with enemy types embedded in the scenery. Vines that are really monster tongues. Dangerous Venus fly traps that will chomp away at any bystander slow enough to get caught. These enhance the aesthetic and platforming trickiness, plus prove that Moon Studios was having a good time brainstorming new ways to challenge the player.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the dreaded escape sequences.. Which are SO much better this time. Legitimately. These action-packed scripted moments were among my least favorite parts of the original. Dying constantly during what’s supposed to be a cathartic series of events killed any momentum. Not this time around. These are much less technical while still incorporating much of the game’s fabled movement tech. The result are memorable, epic arrangements that are much more memorable for being exhilarating as opposed to frustrating.

Then, we’ve got quests!

Will of the Wisps is much more structured in this regard, offering a menu of main missions and optional content. There’s the overarching campaign quest then stuff like side objectives, character stories, rumors pointing to areas of interest, combat arenas and even timed races called Spirit Trials. Most of these augment the experience, especially for those that love the feeling of crossing off checklists. The combat areas are particularly worthwhile, unlocking upgrade slots.

While compact, there are super impactful side quests that tell their own stories within the forest world of Niwen. The standout for me is about a family of Moki reuniting, which literally forced me to step away due to the emotional resonance. After the first game, it’s clear that story is part of what makes Moon Studios’ work so memorable. I didn’t expect to be hit so hard by an optional mini mission about a family of lemurs.

To keep everything organized, there’s a robust menu offering. There’s the map, a tab for upgrades and even for inventory. Helps keep quests and items organized. Albeit the menu pages are cumbersome, especially inventory. Luckily it’s solely supplementary.

A byproduct of the quest system combined with its Metroidvania roots means revisiting areas satisfies the crave for exploration. Especially when experimenting with new abilities. It doesn’t feel like padding, either. The map isn’t daunting and there’s multiple fast travel points in each area. The designers make it easy to search the nooks and crannies, then return to base to use materials or currency.

That reminds me I haven’t yet discussed base building. Now that the series has so many characters, it needs a place for everyone to hang! That, friends, is Wellspring Glades.

Town leader Grom is descends from an ancient race of miners and builders. He’s set up shop and requests help from Ori to make Wellspring Glades comfortable enough for people to live there, safe from the decay that’s enveloping the land. It’s nowhere near the level of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet it offers a reason to check out different locations or follow-up on character leads plus provides a sense of camaraderie with the various characters.

As the player helps Grom with building, new areas of the town open up for exploration. It’s quaint, and nowhere near essential, though I welcome this sort of centralized location for merchants. Especially if it means I can buy cool new stuff!

Along with the new combat mechanics and weapon system are, naturally, upgrades. In the form of Spirit Shards, for which Spirit Light is the trading currency. In another homage to a game like Hollow Knight, this system allows for a set number of slots to be filled with various buffs or debuffs. Want to do more damage at the expense of lower health? Do you prefer more ability energy or more health?

There are always trade-offs with this level of customization, which can make for some sweet builds. I opted for a tanky approach, maxing both health and resistence to damage, with one slot dedicated to making sure that enemies dropped more Spirit Light each time so that I could reinvest those earnings. It supports plenty of playstyles, and really makes a difference against later game enemies.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

The backdrop to all of these new elements is a staple of the series: Its art design. Which is truly incredible. Pleasing. Pastoral. Picturesque. Plenty of ways to describe the game’s general aesthetic. Its most striking feature yet again.

What I noticed more in this follow-up is a specific attention to detail in animations and character nuances. Ori’s arms swooping and swinging. Doing a handstand while on top of a vine. Flailing while flinging off a spinning wheel. These subtleties are not insignificant, each of them proves how sound the design philosophy is when it comes to art and animation direction.

All this said, arguably my favorite part of Blind Forest and now Will of the Wisps is the music. It’s as good as ever here. Gareth Coker’s score is dynamic, shifting from haunting pianos to suspenseful strings as effortlessly as Ori traverses early game areas. The title track is especially moving, like a remastered version of the first. It’s a soundtrack that works as well within the context of the game as it does while casually listening. That’s proof of an amazing score.

What I notice all this time while singing the game’s praises, it’s tough to find major complaints with Will of the Wisps. I’d be lying if my upcoming comments didn’t feel like nitpicks.

The introduction of combat mechanics does have its downside, especially depending on difficulty level. There’s just a lot of it, and enemies can be relentless when traversing Niwen since they respawn constantly. It didn’t happen a lot to me, but there were times it messed with pacing and flow of movement. I’d imagine this is exasperated the higher the difficulty. I tried both Easy and Normal. During the latter, I occasionally wished for less foes when trying to get through a daunting platforming section.

While I personally adore introducing quests to the game, there are a good amount of optional ones that might annoy those going for the critical path. I don’t want to criticize a game for offering more content, so it’s less a complaint and more an observation. Spirit Trials in particular, the mini races against the clock scattered around the world, are superfluous and target a slice of the player base. I ran one of them and was uninterested after that.

Experienced random, minor quality of life hiccups. I mentioned the inventory menu before, cumbersome and difficult to follow. During gameplay, item pick ups stop the action a la The Legend of Zelda. Even later in the game. This is a pet peeve of mine. And I know I’m not the only one.

At this point, I’ll briefly address performance and stability by not actually saying much about it temporarily. I played through the entirety of the game on a pre-release build. Which means I’ll update this section after spending time with it now that an early patch is available.

Co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol run a unique outfit at Moon Studios, where the team is mostly worldwide rather than in a centralized location. This is reflected in a game that’s so varied, yet has a cohesive thematic approach. It’s fun to move around, to slash and fight, to reach places previously unattainable, to search behind a wall and be rewarded for trying, to find out a character’s background and help them with a task. To accomplish all this within a world as gorgeous as Niwen is breathtaking.

Blind Forest was great. However, a mostly lonely experience in a world devoid of friendly life. Will of the Wisps is the opposite, their team crafting an artistic masterwork that takes the best kind of inspiration from peers to form an unforgettable game where most everything works in harmony.

The highest praise I could give a game is that I didn’t want it to end. That was the case here, even after 20 plus hours of uptime.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

When it comes to narrative, it’s bold in where it goes with its character arcs. Unafraid. For a game with little dialogue, it says so much. When the world is suffering, rebuilding still has its sacrifices.

As I wrap here on my latest critical piece, I always make it a point to challenge myself on areas that didn’t work for me. I have to be critical. No game is perfect. Even the ones I love.

Knowing this, I stand by my sentiment that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the closest thing to an essential Xbox and PC game this year, even this console generation, and it’s a treat to experience the level of artistic vision that it takes to create such a momentous work.

Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Release Date: March 11, 2020

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios.

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, Windows 10 PC, Steam.

Recommendation: Unequivocally, it’s an essential part of the Xbox catalog and a treat to play for anyone with access to any of its platforms. You, hm.. Will not be disappointed!

Sources: Screenshots and Key Art courtesy of Xbox Wire.

Note: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft.

-Dom

Review: It’s a Colorful, Enjoyable & Laughable Journey to the Savage Planet

Many games try to capture the wonder of stepping foot onto unknown terrain, ready to survey a mysterious, faraway world brimming with life and flora. Beautiful landscapes to admire. Alien secrets to uncover. Danger lurking around any corner.

Few of them then immediately encourage the player to soccer kick a stout, cartoonishly round bird-like creature to watch it fly helplessly through the air then pop in a smattering of goo ending in a satisfying *splat*.

Then again, not every game is Journey to the Savage Planet.

An interaction like this embodies what the first game from Typhoon Studios is: a colorful, hilarious trek across a new planet where the player surveys a host of living organisms, traverses multiple biospheres, confronts different wildlife and ultimately seeks the hidden messages of a foreign world. It’s a mostly satisfying type of adventure game, albeit subtly flawed and reveals itself to be more conventional as it progresses, that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is much better for it.

The first-person adventure game is set in a galaxy where Kindred Aerospace, which dubs itself the 4th Best Interstellar Exploration company, sends a spanking new recruit to explore potential planets for humans to inhabit. Its gameplay is a combination of strolling around and platforming across environments in four bespoke biomes on a planet called AR-Y 26. The player scans its surroundings and discovers world items to build up a codex, a knowledge base for profiling the unfamiliar habitat. There’s also combat against hostile creatures and even boss enemies, as the player is equipped with a cool, laser Nomad Pistol plus thrown items like bait bottles and plant bombs.

It’s humorous and clever from the beginning, especially in its presentation of how Kindred communicates with its lonely recruit so far from home. Typhoon leverages full motion video capture to beam messages from Kindred CEO Martin Tweed or wacky infomercials for futuristic products such as Brain Wipes, advertised as tissues for one’s cerebral that can wipe away a bad mood. This format, along with other touches I’ll mention later, represent the game’s personality as a comical commentary on capitalism and the expendibility of its corporate worker bees.

Since it’s such a compact map with distinct areas to explore, diverting one’s attention or experimenting is rewarding. Nothing ever takes too long, then it’s on to the next thing that piques my interest. While there are traditional missions and even side quests, these aren’t as fun as going off in a direction just to see what’s there.

While the best parts of the game are its distractions, there are technically a couple main goals. The kinds of objectives that serve to push its more nebulous narrative forward. Our artificial intelligence companion EKO tells us we’ve crash landed so naturally we need to repair our ship, the Javelin, then find enough fuel to eventually make a return trip to Earth. You know, a classic video game MacGuffin. The other much more intriguing task is Kindred’s assignment for us to document everything on AR-Y 26 by building up a Kindrex, our handy master list of alien life and mysterious artifacts.

Oh. There’s also the massive floating tower scraping the sky that dominates the horizon, which ends up being the infatuation of Kindred’s CEO. He has to know what’s inside, regardless of how perilous of a predicament it becomes for his employee.

The game’s initial areas, the Landing Site and Itching Fields, reveal there’s all sorts of weird stuff to see and interact with across wintry tundras, jungle climates and poisonous swamps. The standout here is its variety as we progress upward toward the tower. Animals with silly species names like Pufferbird, the fat little guys I splattered before, and the carnivorous shrub known as a Meat Vortex. There’s shrubbery like the Vitality Plant, which drop seeds that help us survive. Bombegranates have, well, bombs that explode when we chuck them. There are sections with exotic, ominous titles like Chamber of Intrigue and Towering Crystals of Madness. Collectibles pop up in the form of scannable statues, hinting that we aren’t the first visitor to this fertile land.

Journey to the Savage Planet is built on this foundation of discovery and cohesiveness. These kinds of terms and their corresponding descriptions in the Kindrex establish the game’s eternal charm. It often breaks the fourth wall in clever ways, while also tying these kinds of comments back to its universe. Even pop-up text for achievements and trophies earned along the way are quips. Typhoon absolutely nails the general identity, complete with cheery music and subtle flourishes.

Shifting to mechanics, our core loop is exploring, scanning, fighting when necessary then claiming rewards in the form of materials that build upgrades to allow access to the next broader area. As many games do these days, Journey to the Savage Planet has “Metroidvania” elements in grappling points or cracked walls that can only be accessed via specific abilities. I’ve come to expect this in most modern titles, and while temporarily frustrating to a completionist like myself, I mostly appreciate them enticing me back towards new slices of familiar areas.

Naturally, there are plenty of powerful upgrades to build out the character page. It’s a much more robust system than I expected. The Proton Tether allows grappling and really opens up the traversal to being way more fun than the first section. A more powerful iteration allows travel on ziplines. Seriously, who doesn’t love that moment when you can finally ride the zipline you’ve been eyeing all game?

Jump Thrusters add to mobility and enable double, triple and even quadruple jumps later game. A better helmet scanner highlights where the most hidden of items dwell, a favorite of collectors like yours truly. Damage, reload and charge boosts for our trusty handgun make beating up baddies easier, which is welcome because the game’s combat is pedestrian as I’ll expand on soon.

While I wouldn’t call its ability system anything revolutionary, I dig Typhoon’s plan here for a sense of progression without applying a character level or experience bar. Mechanics progress at the same pace as discovery of the world and its peculiar history, mainly because expanding on them allows for access to previously obstructed paths.

Operating in unison with a humorous approach to, well, mostly everything is its stunning visual aesthetic. Typhoon’s tenets here are a beautiful color palette, creative creature design and variety of sensory effects. This is the game’s most obvious strength that’s easy to convey. Just look at it!

Each biome has a distinct personality that’s communicated via its look, combining scenery, animal styles and plant design.

Its smallest creatures remind me of Halo grunts, except friendlier and covered in a coat of bright paint. There are also loud, multi-headed animals that split into two unique bodies after being hit, like a cell dividing itself. Then there’s larger more aggressive species like Pikemanders and Slamphibians, the latter of which some grotesque blend of frog and primate.

As I worked my way upwards toward later chapters, I encountered hallucinogenic plants and bubbling Orange Pods that increased health and stamina when eaten. Some flora spray seeds when damaged, not all of them helpful as I found out by slapping one filled with acid. Animals drop materials that are sucked up magnetically a la Ratchet and Clank. Honestly, just the collecting itself is satisfying. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a video game after all.

Speaking of, there are light puzzle elements. Mini areas that require stealth or tricky platforming, both of which can be finicky unfortunately. Each area even culminates in a boss with its own mechanics, like having to hit weak points while dodging dangerous attacks or grappling up ledges to hit the perfect angle from which to fight. It works well enough, even if I occasionally struggled with controls or aiming.

The coolest part of Journey to the Savage Planet is how Typhoon designed everything to fit together and amid the type of corporate universe in which it exists. Items like Grob, an amorphous matter that can be constructed into food. Or how fast travel is actually the ship’s artificial intelligence transcribing the player’s consciousnesses onto a new body (As EKO tells it, we’re supposed to consider it “teleporting”).

There’s slick animation when the player stretches after waking up on the ship or collects samples from an ancient effigy. Seemingly small moments that define its satirical tone. Like how there are periodic “progress reports” from Kindred, which track the player’s actual statistics and ask personal questions about the trip. It’s all a part of the experience.

The attention to detail, its visual styling and the level of care put into each unique design that shows me that the team at Typhoon was clearly having a ton of fun during development, which inspires me to find all that its game has to offer.

Honestly, I think I had more fun being distracted than actually moving towards the finale. We’re meant to do silly things. And fail along the way. There’s even an achievement for scanning one’s dead body after being reincarnated. Since it’s such a compact map with distinct areas to explore, diverting one’s attention or experimenting is rewarding. Nothing ever takes too long, then it’s on to the next thing that piques my interest. While there are traditional missions and even side quests, these aren’t as fun as going off in a direction just to see what’s there.

All the collecting and scanning builds its lore, since the best storytelling Typhoon does is indirect. We’re learning from in-game items that we might not be the first traveler to embark on such a tour, which ties into later game happenings for those paying close attention to the documents and videos.

As enjoyable as its exploration and world-building, not all edges in Journey to the Savage Planet are of the smooth variety.

Side quests are forgettable and exist for the sole purpose of filing out the upgrade tree. As are “science challenges” that lock the best stuff behind a set of hyper-specific tasks like shocking a large number of enemies or jumping from a height without dying. I wouldn’t call them fun, though they encouraged more unique combat approaches. A couple in the final group are plain annoying and arduous. The most frustrating part is knowing that the coolest upgrades can’t be seen until trying over and over to accomplish the exact task.

Combat itself is, well, decent enough to get the job done but nowhere near the highlight. Like the first BioShock except with only one weapon and throwables in the left hand as opposed to cool Plasmid powers. There’s often too much of it, which results from enemies becoming hyper-aggressive once the fight begins. Since it’s not the game’s strongest suit, it can be strenuous to have a dozen animals screaming towards you when all you want to do is scan a new collectible. In the back half, I found myself avoiding conflict more than seeking it.

Swapping over to quality of life and accessibility touches, Journey to the Savage Planet is immensely inconsistent. This is disappointing in an era where so many games focus on flexibility.

Fast travel works mostly well, except loading times are just a bit too long when moving between areas rather than within one. I did experience a bug where I couldn’t unlock one of the teleporters, which kept me from completing the set. My hunch is that there’s a combat sequence before it that failed to load, because there’s a comparable encounter at another device.

Controller mapping is nonexistent as it stands pre-release, and the options that are present don’t feel natural especially for the sake of combat. It’s 2020. I firmly believe every game should incorporate a level of customization in button mapping. The more options, the better. And there aren’t many here.

Certain parts of the menu are only accessible back on the Javelin computer, like alien logs and completion statistics. It would have benefited from a sort of wristwatch that could pull these up at will. Especially because so much of the game is about knocking out items on a checklist, I’d prefer an easier way to keep track of my progress or see the collectibles I’ve found.

As mentioned before, its narrative is ambiguous. Which isn’t a sort of major negative, it just left me wanting. There’s not much dialogue. It’s a lonely game where the player is the main and only character on the planet. Which means I didn’t learn about myself, if that makes sense. Part of it is, this is going to be super specific, the protagonist never really communicates back to Kindred or EKO. Perhaps this is because I chose to be a dog, granted. I’m curious if it changes as a human. Even so, what it lacks in story and character development it makes up for in many other areas.

Operating in unison with the humorous approach to, well, mostly everything is its stunning visual aesthetic. Typhoon’s tenets here are a beautiful color palette, creative creature design and variety of sensory effects. This is the game’s most obvious strength that’s easy to convey. Just look at it!

From a technical standpoint, I’d call it sufficient though I will admit I was disappointed that it crashed three times during my approximately fifteen hours with the Xbox One X version. It even turned off my console, which is unacceptable. Each time I was surrounded by enemies and an explosion happened. Perhaps the engine couldn’t process all at once. It’s a rare occasion when a hard crash results in forcing the console to shut down. This is the type of thing that could be resolved by a future patch, yet I’d be remiss not to report it.

Plus side, I will say, having a photo mode in the pre-launch patch is an excellent feature. It showcases the game’s broader beauty that might be missed from the first-person perspective. Every game is better with one, even if basic in its functionality. I stand by it.

In general, the more I played, the more conventional it started to feel. It’s a quite good, compact experience. I can’t argue it’s doing anything overly innovative or supremely special that I have to drop everything and share a clip or text a friend. While perhaps this limits its potential to stand-out over a longer term, there’s still plenty of fun in the moment.

These aside, I truly had a mostly good time figuring out what the heck was going on in this unique world teeming with life. One note, I wasn’t able to try co-op play before release. There’s a two-player online mode where friends (or enemies I guess, if you so choose) can share in the adventure. The host of the session retains materials, upgrades etc that can apply to their individual save, the guest unfortunately does not. This isn’t uncommon in co-op modes. I can see this being a fun way to experience its silliness, perhaps with a sibling or child.

Journey to the Savage Planet is led by Typhoon Studios co-founders Alex Hutchinson and Reid Schneider, and all throughout it’s clearly a project crafted by a small team of close-knit developers. Because it feels intimate and personal despite its otherworldly setting. It’s genuinely funny. It’s eye-catching in its landscapes. It’s goofy, encouraging and not afraid to let the player stumble into hi-jinks.

Vivid presentation and amusing tone are what caught my attention when I saw it. I’m happy to report these carry through as its best attributes. I’ll remember it most for how much care its designers took to make me chuckle each time I read a passage or engaged with a new species.

It’s the type of adventure that fulfills what the word promises, partly because its combat and narrative aren’t the focus though more because its experience really is the story. That sense of not knowing what I’ll see and making the trip anyway, because I’ve got a hunch I’ll always spot something new.

Title: Journey to the Savage Planet

Release Date: January 28, 2020

Developer: Typhoon Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Epic Games Store Exclusive).

Recommendation: If you like to explore and laugh along the way, this is your game. Don’t expect to be blown away by engaging combat or a gripping tale, and be ready for rough edges and the potential for it to crash once or twice. It’s an experience, albeit a goofy one, that’s worth having. Also, it might be the first and only time a Typhoon game is on platforms other than Stadia, since the studio was purchased by Google back in December.

Sources: 505 Games, Google, Certain screenshots on Xbox One X.

Disclaimer: Review code provided courtesy of 505 Games.

-Dom

Review: Kojima’s Death Stranding is Groundbreaking & Special, Yet Stumbles in its Delivery

Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.

It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.

Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.

The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.

Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.

Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.

Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)

It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).

I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.

Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.

Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.

It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.

There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.

And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.

The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.

Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.

A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.

Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.

Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.

It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.

I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.

After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).

Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.

Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.

To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.

There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)

It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.

Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.

The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.

Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).

All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.

Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.

Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.

This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.

In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.

It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.

Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.

If not, play at your own risk.

Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Day 1 Recap: Serving Up Nostalgia

We’re going back to the Moon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With one, potentially major, caveat..

It was this good because I love Destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow!

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

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

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

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

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom