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Frostpunk Review: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 23:00

Huddled together in a crater, they gather around their last hope against the cold--an aging steam generator. Fueled by coal, it can kick out just enough heat to give the last bastion of humanity a faint glimmer of hope. A moment like this illustrates the essence of Frostpunk, a survival-style city-builder where you must lead a lonely band of survivors not against encroaching armies, but against a frigid storm that's wiped out most of the human race.

As temperatures plunge well below freezing, it's your job to guide the remaining populace towards establishing a successful, self-sufficient camp. You'll need hunters and hothouses, mines and saw mills. And you have to keep all of these machines running in temperatures that would make even the hardiest penguins shiver.

The essentials are pretty simple, though. People need houses and jobs. Because this is a survival situation, everyone works on a near-constant basis. The day starts at 5:00 AM, and people have a few hours to finish any construction projects before they head to their primary job for 12 hours. Then they head back home, finish a few small tasks, and go to bed.

This cycle is hugely important because you'll need to always make sure you have enough fuel to keep the generator running through the night. A major part of this is planning out when and where people need to be to complete their tasks. If you survive, you'll build outwards in concentric rings, ensuring that, as you expand, your core can keep up with the heating demands and provide enough warmth for your citizens to combat the pervasive chill.

This all works seamlessly, too. There’s a natural pattern to it all, and you’ll be given little challenges throughout the day to help give you a bit more structure. Often, these are emergent consequences of past decisions. If you were able to keep people alive through the night, but not warm enough, then they could get sick--posing a new set of challenges to prioritize for the day after. If any one element of the city is neglected a bit too long, then you’ll start getting more strident demands from your people, which often become more intricate, two-to-three-day goals. The structure for it all is elegant and precise--you always have just enough work, and you’re never left without near and moderate-term goals to help give you direction.

Your mission is also strained by all manner of unavoidable disasters. Everything from sudden cold snaps and necessary amputations to mining disasters and refugee crises crop up, requiring your intervention. This forms what could be called the crux of the game--balancing hope and discontent. Compassionate actions give your people hope. They remind the huddled masses that we (in the general sense) haven’t lost touch with humanity. Dispassionate or draconian acts, however, drain the collective will. Unlike most moral choices in games, neither are unilaterally better.

Compassionate actions are typically better long-term goals for short-term hits. For instance, taking on gravely injured or terminally ill refugees will help hold your people together--reminding them that if they are ever left out or lost, they will be found and cared for. At the same time, medical care in the post-apocalypse is damned near impossible, and if you don't have the facilities to care for the people, you'll soon end up with a pile of bodies spreading disease throughout the colony. Manage to fix up the wounded, though, and you'll have an able-bodied workforce embued with the unbreakable spirit of hope.

These are the kinds of choices Frostpunk lives on, and what separates it from every other comparable game. Frostpunk gets a lot of mileage from it, too. It’s hard to cling to the moral high ground--even if you succeed--when you’re reminded of the sacrifices you’ve made along the way. That gives your decisions weight in a way that SimCity and many of its ilk simply can’t. Here, the effects of disasters are tangible, and the game rightly blames you for your personal failures.

One of your citizens approaches you: "Children should be put to work. We're all in this together, and we need help right now." Then, you're shuffled over to a rough-hewn book of laws for your band. There you can, with a click, start putting the kids to work. Or you could build child shelters to house the kids and keep them healthy and safe from the cold. The citizens didn't present you with that second option--and why would they, they can only see what's immediately in front of them?

Frostpunk itself, in the tutorial, notes that the people you serve are always looking for a solution, but not necessarily the best one. What's ultimately best depends on the emergent challenges you face. Do you have a mysterious illness spreading wildly through the camp? Are you struggling to find coal, forcing you to char firewood and construction materials to keep the generator going? These questions are constant and agonizing throughout. Frostpunk drips cynicism and bleakness. And yet it is that hopelessness, that fundamental need of human beings to persist in spite of everything that Frostpunk seeks to embody most. You become the bulwark against fear--even as you look across the land and internalize just how hard this fight will be.

That's powerful precisely because it hurts. Every time you make a tough call, doubts linger. If you had been better, if you had chosen differently, maybe you'd have been able to save everyone. Adding to the distress, Frostpunk's Hope meter shows you the consequences of your decisions right as they happen. Send children into the mines and you can watch the camp's faith evaporate as a whole chunk of meter gets lopped off.

This system--balancing the will of the people against their own needs--works so well precisely because every mechanism in the game is built to support that core idea. Your job is to manage the emotional fortitude of the people as much as it is about anything else. In time, you'll be able to form scouting parties, outposts, and build a sprawling network of makeshift towns and settlements that stand together. But again, that arc intersects with countless brutal decisions. Should you send a scout to help survivors fight off bears? What about risk turning off an electrical super-weapon that fries everything it touches--but with the potential of a new safe haven from the world outside? The story of your civilization, of your masses hoping, is forged in the choices you make along the way. And they become a part of the narrative you build.

Frostpunk is among the best overall takes on the survival city builder to date. Its theming and consistency create a powerful narrative through line that binds your actions around the struggle to hold onto humanity in uncertain times. Hope is a qualified good, but you may not always be strong enough (or clever enough) to shelter that flame from the cold.

The Invisible Hours Review: From Every Angle

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 18:00

Sharing much of the style of Punchdrunk's 2011 play Sleep No More, The Invisible Hours is more immersive theater than it is interactive fiction. You exist as a ghost in each scene, and you can follow any of the characters at any time, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and pausing as you please. But you don't act on anything; you just observe, gathering pieces of a larger story along the way. That story draws heavily from classic mystery novels, and even though its twist isn't as original as it initially might seem, it's intriguing to watch things unfold from every perspective and learn more about its shady characters.

Set in an alternate version of the late 1800s, The Invisible Hours takes place at inventor Nikola Tesla's mansion, where an assortment of guests--including a very arrogant Thomas Edison--have gathered at his behest. When the first chapter begins, Tesla is already dead, lying in a pool of his own blood in the entryway. If you pause as soon as the chapter opens and wander Tesla's island, you can find five of the guests in their rooms and one outside in a gazebo--and no indication of who the murderer is, of course. In true Agatha Christie fashion, among the guests is a detective who supposedly can help the process along.

That detective, Gustaf Gustav, is the first character you meet and the only person at Tesla's isolated mansion who arrived after the murder. You start out on the docks of the rocky island just as Gustaf's boat approaches, though you can go anywhere at any time rather than sticking by his side. But following Gustaf through a scene gives you the most straightforward perspective, since he's the only one of the seven suspects who almost certainly didn't do it and is simply looking for the killer. Effectively making him the protagonist for your first playthrough of each of the four chapters is the easiest way to get your bearings, and it's a strong anchor for the rest of the story.

That said, The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events. The game is structured so that one revelation or detail won't ruin any other scenes in the same chapter, so you can follow whoever interests you the most and go from there. You can listen to a character discuss a murder trial and then find a newspaper clipping about it with new details, or you can find the news story first--each instance works in isolation with the bigger picture. For the most part, there's something going on at any point in time. There are stretches where characters, when left alone, aren't doing much--looking out windows into the storm, reading books, or sitting and staring into the distance--but there's always a lead to chase somewhere, if not more than one.

The characters and their sordid backstories turn out to be far more interesting than the murder itself. The real mystery is not who killed Tesla but why Tesla invited these people to his mansion in the first place, and as the story progresses, those reasons become more and more clear. The depth of each side story makes rewinding and revisiting scenes rewarding, rather than the chore it could have been. The game also tracks who you've seen and at what time during each chapter, so it's easy to find exactly whose perspective you're missing and track them down--and find out what they were doing when you weren't looking.

Because it shares a lot of the same DNA as classic mystery novels, The Invisible Hours can initially come off a little campy. A few over-the-top characters--especially Edison--and some convenient explanations for their behavior feel like dinner theater fare at times, but there are significant reasons for those apparent missteps to appear the way they do. The Invisible Hours' performances are reflective of that, and the more you learn about each character, the more you can appreciate the acting that goes into all of them. The stage actress in particular is impressive, with shifting body language and changes in her speech revealing the different sides to her.

The Invisible Hours works regardless of the order in which you experience different events.

In the same vein, every plot hole I thought I'd found turned out to be solid once I saw it from every angle. That put me in the position of the characters in mystery novels that frustrate me the most: the ones who jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and cause more problems than they solve. It was a reminder that my job wasn't to figure out whodunnit, and I appreciated The Invisible Hours most when I stopped trying to solve the mystery and instead just watched as it unfolded. Once I did find out who the killer was, I wasn't even concerned with it anymore, for better or worse (though a hard-to-find secret ending makes the killer's reveal more interesting than it is on its own).

The Invisible Hours shifts depending on how you approach its story; scenes take on different meanings as you see them from different perspectives, and as a result, finding every detail in the bigger picture is rewarding. It strikes the same tone as an Agatha Christie novel and at times feels campy for it, but the characters are interesting and well-acted, making each trip through the same few minutes worth it just to see a different character's side of things.

The Swords Of Ditto Review: One Good Turn Deserves Another

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:00

As games continue to grow in scope and complexity, there is something to be said about the light-hearted, compact RPG stylings of The Swords of Ditto. It mixes childlike cartoon visuals and a delightful soundtrack with light puzzles and simple-yet-challenging combat. And while it doesn’t offer anything particularly groundbreaking to seasoned RPG or roguelite fans and backs you into a wall in some confusing ways, the intuitive nature of its systems, along with the inclusion of local two player co-op, makes The Swords of Ditto a fun leap down the rabbit hole into saving a strange and ever-changing cursed town.

The main loop of each playthrough is simple: Wake up, gather a sword from its resting place in the town of Ditto--either from statue or in the graveyard--to become the hero, then seek out the Toys of Legend to destroy the Anchors that the villain Mormo uses to strengthen her grasp on the world, making her easier to defeat in the final confrontation. If you die before then, Mormo wins and Ditto lives under her rule for another 100 years before the new Sword of Ditto is awakened, and the cycle continues. If you succeed, Ditto lives in peace for 100 years until Mormo returns, and it all happens all over again. Getting the hang of this can all feel a little overwhelming at first, but any confusion quickly slips away as the game’s rhythm settles in, and it doesn’t take long to feel comfortable with what’s expected of you.

Co-op play is local only, but the drop-in, drop-out system makes it very easy to have another player come and go at any moment. It also changes up the dynamics of play fairly significantly. Enemies are stronger, as you’d expect, meaning some enemies require a more tactical approach to take down. Items are shared between players, which can put a sudden strain on health items if you’re both struggling to deal with the added difficulty. Thankfully this is alleviated somewhat by an increased item drop rate, so health items can be replenished nearly as quickly as you go through them.

The entirety of the explorable areas are made up of individual sections that are pieced together at random for each playthrough. When out exploring the world, there’s plenty to find and keep you busy. In Zelda-like fashion, you can slice up grass to score more coins or health items. One standout touch: If the weather is dry, you can torch a field of grass and watch it all go up in super-satisfying fashion. Random shops, caves and houses filled with cute and interesting characters dot the world, and while some only share a few repeated lines of dialogue, others offer quests for items or keys to unlock dungeons in other parts of the map. Almost everywhere you look there’s something else to see and do, and it’s this sense of discovery that's felt when finding these hidden gems that makes The Swords of Ditto so rewarding.

Combat is mechanically straightforward; you can perform a simple melee attack with your sword as well as a roll dodge, and you have four interchangeable gear slots for items or weapons that are accessed using the d-pad. You can also buff your character by applying stickers that you find around the world or purchase within certain shops. It’s all fairly rudimentary, but despite the combat’s relative simplicity the enemies are a huge challenge, and this is where it gets gratifying.

Each foe has its own unique way of attacking or defending, and learning this for each enemy will make you much more effective at taking them down. The three-headed fireball will, if it touches you, turn your sword attacks into healing slashes for a few seconds, forcing you to retreat before the effect wears off. The green slime-ball monster falls harmlessly apart when physically attacked--it'll only taking damage when it’s set on fire. It takes some time to learn all of this, but when you do, combat feels much more satisfying. You become more capable of clearing large groups of monsters than if you’d just kept slashing away, and having to think each encounter through makes it all the more enjoyable.

While it needs a little refinement, The Swords of Ditto is sure to delight, whether played on your own or with a friend.

Dungeon puzzles are also relatively simple yet engaging. Some involve coloured switches that rearrange the room entirely, altering your path and the enemies within. Some rooms simply involve killing all the enemies to make a key or a chest appear, while others are increasingly more elaborate and labyrinthian. It’s not unusual to come across a room that demands you place a multiple runes in slots that only appear when a certain switch is triggered, all separated by large chasms, locked doors, and rows of floor spikes. Later rooms will combine all of these variables into one, adding a light complexity that manages to keep things breezy and enjoyable.

Alongside the puzzles, each dungeon submits to the Isle of Trials rules--a set of modifiers that changes the rules of how each dungeon works. Early dungeons will only have one or two of these applied, but later playthroughs will throw upwards of four, and they could be anything from negating poison to activating auto-health-regen while prohibiting the use of consumables. These modifiers keep the game and the dungeons feeling fresh, especially in subsequent attempts, offering new challenges that unpredictably swing things either for or against you.

It’s not a game without issue, though. Even while playing on PS4 Pro, The Swords of Ditto can be prone to quite a bit of slow down and stutter, mostly when there are lots of items strewn about. I also had a couple of triggering issues that would block my progress, meaning I had to quit to the menu and reload the game to reset the room. But the biggest problem is the time limit that’s enforced for each playthrough. You are only given a handful of in-game days--which changes depending on difficulty--to explore, gather resources, and complete quests before being forced into confrontation with Mormo at the end of the final day. Not only that, it feels like the days are too short, making some of the more elaborate discoveries difficult to fully engage with in a single playthrough.

While you can unlock the ability to rewind time by collecting enough of a particular type of item and taking them to a shrine, you have to collect yet a second currency to purchase them on top of that. Given that some of the items required for these longer quests are lost with a new character, It feels like you should have this ability to purchase rewinds from the start. This would have given me more confidence to explore more of the game, instead of keeping one eye on the days remaining and the other on whatever tasks are left to complete.

The Swords of Ditto is nothing short of a light-hearted good time. Despite a few bumps getting in the way of progress and some misgivings about the forced time limit per playthrough, it’s still a joy to slash through enemies and collect items while humming the game’s ear-tickling soundtrack. Meeting oddball characters and watching the world react to past playthroughs is a wonderful exercise, and pushing through the game’s barriers to exploration feels rewarding every time. While it needs a little refinement, The Swords of Ditto is sure to delight, whether played on your own or with a friend.

The Alliance Alive Review: A Change Of Pace

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 04/23/2018 - 20:00

The Alliance Alive wastes no time throwing you into a dark and oppressive world. As soon as you begin, you meet young Azura and her friend Galil. In their world, Daemons have sealed off continents from each other, forced humans to toil under Beastfolk masters, and covered up the sun for over a thousand years. Azura dreams of seeing a painting of a blue sky. It seems like a silly thing to obsess over, but anything that can bring even a twinge of happiness is something worth risking life and limb for.

This story is only the beginning, however, as you are funneled through a series of three intersecting perspectives: Azura and Galil, the Daemoness Vivian and her desire to observe humanity directly, and a human servant to Daemonic overlords named Gene. At about ten hours in, the three parties’ stories converge in a spectacular battle against a powerful foe, and the game transforms from a linear RPG into a more open-ended adventure to free humanity from its oppression and discover the truths of the world they live in.

Alliance Alive’s world captures your interest from the get-go and is uplifted by strong visual design that creates a series of distinct, detailed environments. The story moves along at a brisk pace, never lingering for too long on a singular location or plot point. Dialogue is also succinct and punchy, though some of the character development suffers a bit as a result--Daemon noble Vivian’s motives are flimsy compared to the machinations of the mysterious Gene and eccentric inventor Tiggy, while Azura and Galil’s rebel companions barely get any characterization at all. Overall, though, The Alliance Alive never feels likes it’s dragging its feet.

The game's turn-based combat deviates from established RPG norms in a lot of interesting ways. First, characters do not level up; instead, they randomly gain stat boosts after battle. Secondly, most characters can equip any weapons and armor they want, but they need to use said weapons in combat in order to gain proficiency and skills (which, much like stat gains, are learned at seemingly random moments). Thirdly, combat formations are hugely important here: depending on their position and the role (offense, defense, or support) a character is assigned, the effectiveness of attacks and skills is altered--and skills have individual levels tied to the specific position a character is in.

These oddball elements, though perhaps strange at first, help make combat more engaging than just mashing through menus. However, the game does a poor job of explaining most of these systems, expecting you to either be familiar with the series that inspired them (Square-Enix’s SaGa games) or having played developer Cattle Call’s previous RPG with similar combat mechanics, The Legend of Legacy. There are a few NPCs in the starting village that will drop hints, but they’re easily missed and don’t go into a lot of detail. An easy-to-access guide from the camp menu would have been a huge help, but unfortunately, you’re just going to have to learn a lot of Alliance Alive’s quirks through experience.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of everything, you’ll eventually reach a point where the game’s progression shifts towards a more open-ended structure. Despite this change, however, the speedy pacing and the solid combat don’t suffer much--though you may encounter more instances where you need to run from a high-level enemy that’s kicking your tail. One of the most fun elements also opens up around this time: the ability to find helpful NPCs who can be recruited to the various guilds that dot the land.

Groups like the Signimancy Guild, the Library Guild, and the Blacksmith Guild have set up towers across the world, and being in the towers’ sphere of influence yields benefits like enhanced combat stats and random start-of-round attacks and status ailments on enemies. They also aid the party by developing specialty weapons, armor, and spells. As you recruit more NPCs to these guilds, their capabilities also increase. You can engage with this element as little or as much as you want, but it can be one of the most enjoyable parts of The Alliance Alive. The feeling of building up support for your ragtag rebel crew is immensely satisfying--it’s just a shame it takes about a third of a game before it even opens up.

There’s a lot to love about The Alliance Alive: a well-paced story in an interesting world, a meaty mashup of unique combat elements, and a fantastic soundtrack that keeps you pumped and eager to explore. If you can put up with a bit of a learning curve, you’ll find a great portable adventure well worth dusting off your 3DS for.

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Review - Keep the Good Times Rolling

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 04/18/2018 - 21:00

It's rare that a prequel truly works, where a story can captivate despite the audience knowing what's coming and where the path will lead. Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is one of those exceptional stories because it draws you in on its own terms. The only problem: You know it's building you up just to break your heart.

As we know, the original Life Is Strange is steeped in tragedy. Maxine Caulfield's estranged friend Chloe Price comes riding back into her hometown, hoping to find her missing friend, Rachel Amber. The search brings Chloe and Max close again after years apart, but it also illustrates a vast gulf in their life experience, which never fully closes. Max's life is defined by good fortune and privilege. Chloe, as seen through Before The Storm, is defined by loss.

When Episode 1 starts, Chloe is forced to finagle her way into an underground metal concert with nothing but street smarts and her own awkward sense of sass. She's not yet as sharp and hardened as the girl we meet in the original game, but she has it in her to become stronger as life gets tough. That girl's outlook on life is everywhere in Before The Storm: the greyer, evocative, post-rock soundtrack compared to the sunny lilt of the original game, the sneering commentary of the information in the menus. The Backtalk system—a stand-in for Life Is Strange's time travel mechanic—gives you even more control over the flow of a conversation to get what you want. It's a way to portray Chloe's very human strengths that sadly doesn't get implemented often enough in the latter two episodes.

Whoever you choose to make Chloe become, meeting Rachel shifts her focus. In the original game, Rachel is to Arcadia Bay what Laura Palmer is to Twin Peaks: a bonafide popular girl whose absence seems to mean everything to everyone, but who no one seems to really know on a personal level. Chloe Price, however, did know her, and Before The Storm gives you the chance to find out what was so special about Rachel in Chloe's eyes.

On the surface, the answer seems to be nothing. Episode 1 has Chloe and Rachel playing hooky, and trying to suss each other out, which doesn't tell you anything you couldn't guess on your own. It's only after Rachel catches her District Attorney father in a compromising act that she metaphorically bares everything, revealing she and Chloe aren't as different as they seem.

Before The Storm's three episodes are roughly two hours each, depending on how compulsive you are about exploring every nook and cranny. Compared to the original game, which leaned heavy on the implications of Max's time travel, Before the Storm has no real supernatural crutch to lean on to solve the world's problems. What few flights of fancy there are--aside from a heartwarming impromptu Shakespeare performance in Episode 2--manifest as occasional dream sequences, more for Chloe to sort through her own grief than to affect the world around her. The real world around Chloe continues to crumble, and your choices tend to fall on the side of figuring out how to sort the remains. It's choices like figuring out how best to deal with being kicked out of school, whether it's worth upsetting Chloe's mother to clap back at her trashy gun-nut stepfather, or parse out how much basic respect to give the gossip girls on Blackwell Academy's campus.

The heart of it all remains Chloe's relationship with Rachel. It's a textbook case of two people finding someone worth clinging to, and taking it on good will that their faith in each other isn't misplaced at best or going to get them killed at worst. Episode 3 veers ever slightly off into low-grade cable-TV drama, but even that's played earnestly, with Chloe and Rachel's mistakes having tangible, believable consequences, and choosing how Chloe deals with her failings is endlessly captivating to play through.

That captivation is, of course, the problem, if you can call it that. It's a game that so admirably and genuinely builds a relationship between two girls who absolutely need and deserve each other; when it gets to the ugly business of reminding you where it ends, it sours and saddens every moment. You could use your choices to keep Rachel at a bit of distance, but even that distance feels unfair, because why wouldn't both girls deserve their momentary bliss?

Still, Before The Storm's main three episodes largely play out as though the future isn't set in stone, allowing you to craft something resembling a momentary win for an ill-fated relationship, entertaining the notions of coping and vulnerability in ways very few games typically have time or inclination to. The bittersweet cherry on top, however, is contained in the game's Deluxe Edition, a final episode that allows you to play through Max and Chloe's last beautiful day together before Max leaves for Seattle. It's light, whimsical, often funny, and bathed in a gentle golden nostalgia. And once again, its final moments bring truth rushing in, and it's a stab in the heart.

This, apparently, is the heartbreaking joy that is Life Is Strange: the inevitability that life will do terrible, unexpected things to people whose presence we love, and people who absolutely deserve better. Developer Deck Nine's contribution through Before the Storm posits that the pain is still worth it; just to have the time at all is enough. A storm is still coming to Arcadia Bay, and Rachel will still disappear one day, and it doesn't matter. Being able to spend time with Chloe when her heart is at its lightest, and putting in the work to keep it going, is powerful and worthwhile.

Penny-Punching Princess Review: In For A Pound

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 04/13/2018 - 15:00

Penny-Punching Princess opens by declaring that, in the age of capitalism, money is where real power comes from. This is a game about a princess who needs to accumulate wealth to get revenge on the Dragaloan Family, who sent her father into poverty and death with their harsh interest rates. It's an intriguing, startling note for a cutesy beat-em-up game to open on. This isn't a 'message' game--don't go in expecting a searing critique of capitalism, as it's largely played for laughs--but this framing device immediately makes it clear that this brawler is going to be different. It might not be in the top-tier of its genre, but at the very least Penny-Punching Princess is unique.

The game is an isometric beat-em-up, in which fighting is your main form of interaction with the world. There are no puzzles to solve, and the level design is extremely simple, to the point of being universally uninteresting, designed just to funnel you between fights--the extent of permissive exploration is simply a matter of going left when your compass is telling you to go right. When a fight starts, the Princess (or Isabella, a zombified second playable character that you unlock a few hours in) can perform quick punches, use a stronger charge attack, or roll to safety. It's not the deepest system, and your defensive options are limited.

Most fights involve a few waves of enemies, usually of increasing danger, and generally, there will be traps, like buzzsaws, giant rolling balls, and fields of poison, to avoid too. The Princess and Isabella play very differently, although most players will likely attach themselves to a favourite rather than swapping between them--I stopped using the Princess almost entirely after unlocking Isabella. Unfortunately, there's not much variety in the game beyond this choice between the two. The arenas you fight in throw more and more traps at you as the difficulty ramps up towards the end of a chapter, but no specific encounter every really stands out.

When you beat enemies to a certain point, the word 'break' appears over them, and if you rotate the right stick, coins will spill out of them. Coins are important during a fight, as they can be used to bribe both enemies and traps. Enemies vary in price depending on their power, but if you bribe an enemy not only will it disappear from the battlefield, but you'll be able to summon it to fight for you. You can bribe traps too, meaning that they'll stop hurting you and can be turned onto enemies. Traps are more cost-effective--they're cheaper and tend to do a lot of damage--but using them properly also means that you need to lure your enemies into range. Leading a powerful enemy right into a trap and doing massive damage is extremely satisfying, even if most of the game's boss fights come down to you leading a huge enemy from trap to trap. During hectic battles, it's hard to know exactly what you're about to bribe--the Princess can be more exact, but in the heat of the moment you're more likely to just nab whatever is directly in front of you--which can get frustrating.

Every enemy and object you bribe gets added to your collection, which can be cashed in to build new armour and Zenigami Statues (which are effectively the currency used for stat upgrades). A piece of armour, for instance, might require you to have previously bribed five of a specific minor enemy, two of a stronger, more expensive enemy, and two buzzsaw traps. Each piece carries a price like this, and if you're missing something the level select screen handily highlights four enemies and traps you'll encounter in each individual level. Upgrading your armour is essential--occasionally you'll hit enormous difficulty spikes and realise that you're under-equipped, at which point you'll typically need to jump back into earlier levels and grind to collect specific bribe targets (and search for treasure chests, many of which contain additional Zenigami statues).

The grind is rarely too severe if you're being mindful and upgrading as you go, but the difficulty spikes can hit hard. It's frustrating when you reach the end of a level only to find that the final boss is far too powerful for you to take on, and the checkpointing, which can be somewhat capricious, means that you'll often have to redo easier fights just to reach the more difficult ones again. My frustration only occasionally boiled over to the point where I had to step away for a moment, but there was also rarely a real sense of reward for having beaten a difficult level, because you know the next level is just going to involve doing the same thing again.

All of this is presented without too much flourish. The sprite-based character designs are occasionally charming (Sebastian, a stag-beetle who acts as the princess' butler and appears in pre-and-post-level interstitials, is pretty funny), and the weird script plays up the game's irreverence to good effect, but it's difficult to really get invested in Penny-Punching Princess' cycle of punching and spending. While the game is moderately entertaining and has its moments it just doesn't offer lasting satisfaction. Penny-Punching Princess doesn't set its sights particularly high, and while it feels like it's achieving what it intended, it's hard not to wish there was a little more to it.

God Of War Review: Divine Bloodshed

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 04/12/2018 - 08:01

The God of War series has, until now, stuck very close to the standards set in the original 2005 game. More than a decade (and many games) later, it makes sense that Sony would want to mix things up for the aged hack-and-slash series. Like so many popular franchises that have reinvented themselves in recent years, the new God of War dips into the well of open-world RPG tropes. It also shifts its focus to Norse mythology, casting off the iconic Greek gods and legends that provided the basis for every previous game.

These major shifts don't signal the end of God of War as we know it, rather they allow the series' DNA to express itself in new ways. There are many reasons why the structural transformations are a good thing, but it's what's become of Kratos, the hulking death machine, that leaves a lasting impression. A furious, bloodthirsty icon has transformed into a sensitive father figure. Part of him retains the old violent tendencies that made him a star long ago. However, with his young son Atreus to protect and guide, we also see Kratos take a deep breath and bury his savage instincts in order to set a positive example.

Watching Kratos take care in nurturing his child's sensibilities does feel a bit jarring at the start, but thanks to the natural writing, fitting voice actors, and flawless animation, it's easy to get sucked into the duo's journey and buy into their mutual growth. Though he is a teacher, Kratos carries a mountain of grief and self pity that only the innocence of his son can help him overcome. And Atreus experiences his own ups and downs that might have set him down a very different path if not for Kratos' guiding hand.

Atreus was raised in isolation from the dangers of the wild world around him, and rightfully fails to grasp his place in it when confronted with the realities of a land protected by and under siege from gods. It's the death of his mother prior to the start of the game that thrusts Atreus and Kratos outward; her dying wish was to have her ashes spread atop the highest peak in the land. As if wild predators and ghastly fiends weren't obstacles enough, representatives from the pantheon of Norse mythology arise in an attempt to disrupt their mission, establishing the amplified stakes and the clash of impressive forces that you expect from God of War.

And like its predecessors, God of War is a technical and artistic showcase. It is without a doubt one of the best-looking console games ever released, with every breathtaking environment and mythical character exhibiting impressive attention to detail and beautifying flourishes aplenty. The vision behind all of this is evident in Kratos' meticulously grizzled physique and weathered equipment, in the atmospheric effects that transform believably rustic environments into the stuff of dreams, and in the overall design and structure of the world itself.

The majority of the journey is set in the realm of Midgard. At its heart lies a wide lake that you can explore by canoe, with a coastline dotted by optional puzzles, formidable opponents, and entrances to the map's primary regions. Your mission will carry you through to most of these places, and along the way you'll likely take note of inaccessible pathways and glimpses of sealed treasures. There's always ample room to explore off the main path and good reasons to give into curiosity regardless, but these teases in particular spur you to re-examine previously visited areas as your capabilities expand.

With the boy fighting by your side, firing arrows or choking unsuspecting enemies, you will team up against corrupted cave trolls, face towering beasts, and fight hundreds of intelligent supernatural warriors during your travels. Kratos prefers to use an axe these days, which functions very differently than the chained Blades of Chaos he's known for. This comes with the very satisfying and cool ability to magically summon your weapon to your hand (like Thor and his hammer), a move that never gets old.

And really, neither does combat in general. The new over-the-shoulder camera brings you directly into the fray, and consequently limits your view. You can't see enemies from all angles at once and must be on guard at all times. By default the game provides proximity icons to alert you of incoming attacks, but it's worth tinkering with the UI for a more immersive experience as you get the hang of how fights flow.

It's rare that you can actually spam combos without putting yourself at risk, and this emphasis on mindfulness solidifies God of War's graduation from the traditional hack-and-slash doldrums. The realities of fighting with an axe also makes skirting away from harm an exacting process. But when variables align and you get to lay into an enemy, Kratos' dexterous axe handling allow him to hit hard, and give you the opportunity to flex his might with a bit of style.

The basic set of close-range combos and weapon behaviors can be expanded by pouring experience points into a skill tree and by activating magical rune abilities that bind to your two attack inputs. There are a lot of options to consider and tactics to learn, including skill trees for fighting empty-handed. There's a wonderful rhythm to be found when switching from axe to fists, and then into Kratos' satisfyingly brutal execution moves, all the while ducking and rolling out of harm's way.

God of War's combat is already great at the start, but it gets better as it steadily introduces one new layer after another. You can absolutely stumble into incredibly punishing enemies that are made easier with adept timing and mastery of every available skill, but you can also succeed at any level so long as you've mastered the art of parrying and dodging incoming attacks.

Atreus can't be configured to the same extent that Kratos can, but there are still a lot of ways to tailor his capabilities to your liking. The arrows he fires can be laced with different types of magic, with multiple elemental and functionality upgrades, and he eventually gains the ability to summon spectral animals that can harm and distract enemies, or collect items. Thanks to the smart button layout, it's actually very easy to both attack and defend as Kratos while also commanding Atreus. God of War gives you plenty to do in any given moment and makes you feel like an experienced warrior in the process.

The armor that Kratos and Atreus wear can influence a range of character stats, elemental affinities, and may include slots for enchantments that grant further bonuses. Armor can be purchased or crafted using the few resources scattered about the world, and can be upgraded by the game's two blacksmiths: two dwarven brothers constantly at odds with each other. There's Brok, the foul-mouthed blue dwarf, and Sindri, a far more gentle yet tragically germophobic fellow--a gag that is usually funny, though occasionally pushed a bit too hard.

As enjoyable as those two can be, it's Mimir that ultimately steals the show. The horned, one-eyed sage accompanies you and Atreus for the majority of the game, serving as your guide to Midgard, and an inside source into the ins and outs of Norse politics. Mimir and the blacksmiths have strong individual personalities, as with every other character you meet during the course of the game. We're keeping other identities vague in general to avoid spoilers, but regardless of who you bump into, God of War's cast is strong, convincing, and oddly enchanting. But the real accomplishment is how, even though there are just a handful of characters to interact with, their big personalities color your adventure with tantalizing anecdotes that draw you into the world and imbue the land with a tangible sense of history.

If there's any piece of the overarching mission that feels like a letdown, it's the final battle against the primary antagonist. He's great from a narrative standpoint, unraveling in a manner that changes your perspective, but it's the fight itself that leaves you wanting. There are plenty of big boss battles and tests of skill throughout the course of the game, yet this fight doesn't reach the same heights, and feels like it was played a little safe. It could be an effect of configuring Kratos and Atreus just so, or it may just be too easy to begin with. Thankfully, that's not all the game has up its sleeve.

Two optional areas in particular seem designed with the endgame in mind. The first, Muspelheim, offers a series of battles in arenas surrounded by lava flows and scorched earth. Some trials are merely fights against strong enemies, while others require you to defeat waves in quick succession--if even one enemy remains alive, it only takes a few seconds for others to resurrect automatically. The other realm, Niflheim, is randomly generated every time you visit, but it's always filled with poisonous gas. The goal there is to survive for as long as possible while racking up kills and collecting treasure, and escape before the poison takes hold. Both locations offer tense and rewarding pursuits that are only accessible if you play at your best.

And odds are that you'll be so hooked by the story's pacing and procession of events that there will be plenty of other side activities left in Midgard after the credits roll. God of War isn't set in a massive open world, but it is stuffed with secrets and quests. Where most games with long and diverse quest opportunities tend to run a bit stale by the end, God of War has the opposite effect. It's far longer than it needs to be, though you hope you never run out of things to do.

In many ways God of War is what the series has always been. It's a spectacular action game with epic set pieces, big-budget production values, and hard-hitting combat that grows more feverish and impressive as you progress. What may surprise you is how mature its storytelling has become. Like Kratos, God of War recalls the past while acknowledging the need to improve. Everything new it does is for the better, and everything it holds onto benefits as a result. Kratos is no longer a predictable brute. God of War is no longer an old-fashioned action series. With this reboot, it confidently walks a new path that will hopefully lead to more exciting adventures to come.

Extinction Review - A Giant Mess

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 05:00

Don't let the AAA price tag fool you into thinking Extinction is a high-end product. It ain't, and there's nothing in the game--not even cutscenes--that come close to approaching the level of quality seen in its lavish, pre-launch cinematic trailer.

Discovering Extinction's sub-standard quality is frustrating because its premise is very enticing, and there are moments early on when it feels like it's primed to deliver. As a warrior who's capable of sprinting up walls, soaring through the air, and channeling sacred energy to tap into supernatural strength, you go toe-to-toe against incredibly tall and powerful giants. Taking them down requires you to lop off limbs and dismantle armor, building up enough energy to deliver a killing blow: a whirlwind slice through the back of their neck. Yes, it's obviously inspired by Attack on Titan--you even have a whip that can be used to latch onto hook points and pull yourself through the air.

Zipping across a city to reach a faraway objective, with your character effortlessly scaling walls and bouncing off treetops and canopies to avoid touching the ground altogether, can be enjoyable. And the early battles against the first few giants definitely strike a chord, with their impressive scale and intricately textured body parts giving their artificial bodies a dash of realism. It's all well and good while you're learning the ropes, but these initial thrills fade fast. Extinction quickly transitions into an incredibly repetitive game that fails to build upon its promising foundation.

The excitement of battling giants--easily the game's most admirable piece--wanes quickly. Despite the variations that appear over time, their behavior barely deviates from the standards set early on. Most often, you're merely challenged to target different types of vulnerable objects that bind their armor together, but as you pour points into the upgrade tree to unlock things like extended slow-motion attacks, your character's abilities scale quickly enough that these added steps are no more than inconvenient speed bumps in practice.

In order to get to the back of a giant's neck to take it out for good, you will most often need to cut off one of its legs to make it fall to the ground. Alternatively, some giants have bits and pieces that you can latch onto with your whip, though this system is largely too cumbersome to rely upon. It's very easy for the game to misinterpret its auto targeting and send you flying in the opposite-than-intended direction. Rather than a fun and reliable mainstay, your grapple ability is relegated to Plan-B status.

Nine times out of ten, a hit from a giant means instant death. Your only defensive options are to keep your distance--not always easy, given how close you need to be to cut off their limbs off--or to dodge out of harm's way before an incoming strike. Giants are so big that these attacks often come without warning, save for small red icons that appear near your character's head that are easy to miss while scrambling to simultaneously attack and stay alive.

Should you die, you respawn back into the stage with all your progress intact, but being brought back to life in this way sometimes puts you at an unreasonable disadvantage. Each stage is filled with buildings that giants will gradually destroy until interrupted; when the city is totally leveled, you fail the mission. Many times you respawn at the entry point of a location, which forces you to sprint back all the way back to the fight while a giant whittles away at the remaining buildings in your absence. In light of the great potential for one-hit deaths, being sent back to the beginning of the stage doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Extinction is made by Iron Galaxy, a studio with experience making fighting games. There are reminders of fighting game mechanics within but any depth hinted at by the presence of super-armor and invincibility frames is shot down when you get a glimpse at the three combo lists. Practically every combo is executed with a single button and is only mixed up depending on when you decide to hold it down or delay the next input. Not that you need to master these skills in the first place. You can't damage giants with basic attacks, and smaller enemies are too dumb to put up a good fight.

And if you thought your sword, which is capable of slicing a giant's arm off, would be able to make quick work of an enemy 10 times smaller, you'd be wrong. The same attack you use to slice through bone a meter thick will only kill the most basic type of enemy, leaving others with plenty of health left over to keep fighting.

During missions where your only goal is to rescue citizens, the game arbitrarily changes the rules of engagement, but even then, not consistently. Most stages allow you to activate rescue towers at a normal rate regardless of the number of low-level enemies in the area. But in some rescue missions, suddenly it's "too dangerous" to attempt to activate a tower with nearby monsters, a proclamation from your partner that causes the charge rate to drop to unreasonably slow levels. But in later instances this is no longer the case, and rescue missions can be completed in two minutes or less as a result. Whether by design or by accident, there's a fundamental lack of consistency; some stages change the primary objective after you complete the task presented to you at the start, which, given the destructibility of cities, can put you in an unexpectedly frustrating position.

Perhaps the game's most damning quality is the fact that its story missions are often set in procedurally generated environments. That isn't bad in theory, but Extinction's random stages are typically flat and incredibly similar, and they aren't even in predetermined locations, which completely nullifies any chance of connecting with the story at hand. If giants level a city in one mission, how is it suddenly rebuilt in the next? Your guess is as good as mine. Likewise, the random generation of locations and giants (and their arrangement) can change the difficulty of a particular level from one playthrough to the next. You never quite know if you should press on during a challenging run, or just re-roll and try out a different permutation from scratch.

The story driving you through all of this is told primarily through conversations at the start and the end of a mission. In both cases, the in-game world freezes and static portraits pop up, along with a frustratingly small text box that can only fit two lines of text at a time, even when far more is usually said. While you watch text scroll through this box, dialogue is read aloud at a snail's pace by decent voice actors trapped behind hackneyed writing. The skip button quickly becomes your best friend.

You do get 2D cutscenes between missions on very rare occasions, but the hand drawn art is rough. The fact that only some cutscenes are properly animated while others are storyboard-grade stop-motion is guaranteed to cause concern. Even the game's ending, arguably a pivotal moment deserving of some investment in cinematic flair, is of the stop-motion variety, no more impressive than dressed-up placeholder art.

Extinction shoots itself in the foot time and time again. It's so frustrating to see its good ideas buried under repetitive missions, a forgettable story, and embarrassing production values for its AAA price. Play one hour of it and you've basically done a bit of everything it has to offer; then it's rinse and repeat for as long as you can bear to stick with it. It's a frail and monotonous game destined for the bargain bin.

Fortnite: Battle Royale Review - Laying The Foundation

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 04/09/2018 - 17:00

For a game that was long in development as a cooperative horde-based shooter, the conspicuous and relatively quick addition of battle royale to Fortnite seemed to be a move to capitalize on a trend. However, its seemingly simple building system and loose shooting mechanics not only set it apart from other games built on the same premise, but work extremely well to make a uniquely chaotic and surprisingly deep deathmatch experience.

Everything about Fortnite's presentation emits a lighthearted tone. You start a match by jumping out of a party bus held up by balloons that flies across the game's massive map. Weapons, ammo, and health items litter its silly-named cities, all using alliteration--Tomato Town, Moisty Mire, Tilted Towers, to name a few. Even enemies don't really die; they're teleported away after getting knocked out. Valuable loot is found inside pinatas called supply llamas, for crying out loud. Players throw up basic structures formed out of thin air and firearms brightly express their trajectory. But don't let that first impression fool you; the further you get into a match, the more you see how Fortnite's gameplay elements have to be used in clever and complex ways to emerge victorious.

Unique to Fortnite is a streamlined building system comprised of four components: walls, ramps, floors, and roofs. These are constructed with three different types of materials that you either mine with a pickaxe or scavenge across the map; wood, stone, and metal each have their own properties in terms of durability and build speed. You can further modify structures to have windows and doors. It seems convoluted, but thanks to snappy grid-based layouts and the intuitive control scheme, getting the hang of building isn't much of a hurdle.

At first glance, it's as if Fortnite's original Save The World mode had its mechanics haphazardly dropped into the 100-player last-person-standing premise. But this is the foundation that makes for a myriad of tactical possibilities, like creating a sky-high staircase to climb a mountain to get the higher ground or swiftly fabricating your own cover as you run across an open field to close in on opponents. Literally, bridging the gap between mountains can turn long-range shootouts into close-quarters brawls. Fortnite's dynamic building system always gives you the opportunity to improvise, even when you think your back is against the wall.

For example, players will often shield themselves with structures that act as makeshift bunkers. To undercut that, you could put the pressure on them by constructing your own set of ramps leading into their territory to force a fair fight and eliminate an otherwise well-protected enemy. In these moments, the intrinsically rewarding nature of Fortnite shines through. Conflict isn't just about landing a precise shot or spotting the enemy first; quick wit and improvisation with the given toolset put you in a position to create your own path to success. Eliminations and victories feel very much earned, especially because the late-game often consists of which player or squad has the best architectural acumen in the ever-changing safe zones.

While construction is imperative for victory, so is destruction. Every object in the world of Fortnite can be destroyed. Even as players create their own formidable defense, no one is ever safe for long in battle. A well-placed rocket or remote explosive can quickly dismantle a large, complex fort; if a multi-story tower doesn't have a strong foundation, blasting it from underneath will bring those up high back down to earth. Even a subtle tactic like breaking down a single wall and throwing up a ramp to infiltrate in an imposing fort can prove just as effective.

Approaches to combat also rely on the weapons you scavenge. A typical arsenal made up of rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, and pistols have colored tiers to indicate varying levels of power and rarity. Each gun has a sensible use-case, however, traps and explosives mix things up a bit. This is another aspect in which Fortnite diverges from many other battle royale games; shooting is fast and loose, akin to an arena shooter. Mid-range firefights and close-quarters combat feel more like a fatal dance in and around the structures plopped into the environment. Bunnyhopping with a tactical shotgun is common at close range and spraying assault rifles is standard operation. Fortnite isn't a tactical shooter in the traditional sense, but offers its own bevy of strategic options to keep players on their toes.

Enemy engagement still carries the risk you expect from games of this ilk by nature of having one life per match and the relatively quick time-to-kill. Even after downing a Chug Jug for full health and shield, well-placed shots from a legendary or epic weapon will make short work of anyone. However, the brisk pace at which matches move trades unnerving tension for a higher frequency of action. Yet, as with any battle royale game, looting for resources sits at the core of matches and eats up much of your time. The system in place for loot and resource gathering is efficient, but it grows tiresome after consecutive matches as swinging the pickaxe at trees and houses for necessary materials grows increasingly repetitive.

Another area in which Fortnite is a bit thin is in its map design, a shortcoming that's twofold. The sprawling lone map features a variety of cute, thematic areas: Its metropolis of Tilted Towers and suburbs of Pleasant Park contrast the swamps of Moisty Mire and the countryside of Anarchy Acres. Regardless, there's a feeling many of the map's landmarks lack sophistication in physical layouts and density in loot placement. To its credit, the map's verticality brings the best out in your construction abilities, but city centers like Tomato Town have little to work with when two squads land in the area. A slightly more intricate town like Snobby Shores is sometimes devoid of useful items. It'd be easier to overlook this if you didn't have to trek across to a nearby town on foot that's likely to have been looted, but such is the case.

In just about half a year, Epic has demonstrated strong support with a consistent rollout of new content. Those who have been playing the game are aware of the limited-time modes that put a slight twist on the standard mode. Snipers-only or explosives-only matches have added a neat touch, but past modes like 50v50 or Teams of 20 do much more to change Fortnite's pace and open up new ways to play the game. If that's any indication, Fortnite could have plenty more to offer as it evolves further.

This is a free-to-play game, so you should be aware that it sustains itself through microtransactions. A $10 Battle Pass opens a slew of skins to earn and provides new goals to work towards. It's a reasonable system in that these objectives reward you with cosmetic items that visibly pop within Fortnite's bright art style. There's nothing to infringe on how the game plays, thankfully. If you wish to engage in making your pickaxe to look like a toy, don seasonal outfits, or get the latest viral dance as an emote, you either put in the time to earn it or shell out money for the game's V-Bucks.

While there are several moving parts in the game's ecosystem, Fortnite's biggest accomplishment is in how it seamlessly merges a number of simple mechanics to create a distinguishable battle royale game. What looks to be a straightforward building system steadily escalates to an elaborate display of tactical prowess. As the saying goes: It's easy to learn, hard to master. Although a few shortcomings in the map design eventually surface and fatigue in looting can set in, Fortnite rarely fails at challenging you in unexpected ways, resulting in something more than just another typical last-person-standing shooter.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 04/06/2018 - 18:12

In Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the struggle of coming to terms with past trauma and guilt comes out in a number of surprising ways. Developer Ninja Theory channels its talents for narrative and presentation to tell a personal story that has more to say than it initially lets on, and will likely leave you wondering what's real, and what is a part of an elaborate hallucination.

In a far-off land covered in mist and fog, a traumatized celtic warrior named Senua embarks on a spiritual vision quest to suppress her inner demons, and come to grips with the death of her family. Plagued with severe psychosis, Senua's past trauma manifests itself through duelling inner voices and visual hallucinations that compromise her emotional and mental state. On this journey, she'll face abstract and reality-defying puzzles, and battle a seemingly endless horde of adversaries that aim to put a stop to her quest.

Pulling from Nordic and Celtic lore, the fiction of Hellblade evokes a dire and somewhat bleak atmosphere, making it seem like the world had already ended, leaving Senua with only the company of her memories. Hellblade is an introspective experience, albeit with several combat and interactive story beats scattered throughout. While the story and world are presented through cutscenes and stone glyphs depicting the history of the land, Hellblade also makes clever use of live-action cutscenes. These cinematic moments are blended into in-game graphics, giving each occurrence a somewhat surreal feeling, as if you're watching a live playback of an altered memory.

On her journey through the cursed lands, Senua will come into conflict with the Northmen, an army of berserkers that appear out of thin air. These moments are when the combat comes into play, and it offers some of the most intense and thrilling moments of the game. Despite her illness weighing on her, Senua is still quite adept at fighting and is able to take on a number of foes at once. With fast, heavy sword swings, as well as up-close hand-to-hand strikes, you can use some light combos to hack away at the Northmen, while using dodges and parrying their strikes to get the upper hand.

Though combat is one of the core pillars in Hellblade, the game doesn't concern itself with offering numerous weapons or complex skill-trees to work through. Aside from some new combat abilities unlocked at key story milestones, Senua's arsenal of skills and weapons is kept light till the end. The true challenge and satisfaction comes from mastering the base combat mechanics, which is responsive, and fluid--allowing you to bounce between multiple foes easily, with her inner voices warning you of incoming strikes based on the position they're coming from.

When it comes to portraying mental illness, Hellblade takes a sympathetic approach and isn't at all interested in showing the differences between reality and imagination. It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same. One of the more oppressive aspects of her psychosis are the inner-voices, who quarrel with one another while commenting on the wandering warrior's present state. Using binaural audio--which makes wearing headphones a must for the full effect--you'll get to experience a taste of what it's like to have several voices in your head.

In many ways, it feels like a subversive take on the common video game trope of the bodiless companion offering help via radio, making them a somewhat distressing presence you desperately wanted to keep at arm's length. The effectiveness of the inner voices in making you uncomfortable is a testament to the stellar presentation of the game, which uses some rather inventive tricks to play with perspective and audio-sensory manipulation. It does well to make you feel on edge and in a state of confusion, while simultaneously getting you to focus on the more tangible and true elements of her surroundings--even if they are still hallucinations.

There are times where the voices become a boon to your survival--such as the rather tricky boss battles that force you change up your usual strategies--but the most useful instances come deeper in the game, when you're able to clear through more than 20 foes consecutively, a far cry from the struggles of fighting only two to three foes. Many of these battles serve as the capper for narrative arcs in the story, making it feel like a cathartic emotional purge where you vanquish a construct of Senua's past.

"It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same."

While some characters from Senua's past treated her mental state as a danger, she's able to use it to her advantage to see the order in the chaos of her surroundings--finding patterns and solutions in ways that others wouldn't have the presence of mind to see. Despite how terrifying and draining her psychosis can be, Senua is able navigate the various trials thanks to her unusually heightened perception, which comes out in a number of unique puzzle solving moments.

For the most part, puzzles revolve around unlocking doors by finding glyphs hidden in plain sight or in alternate perspectives that require manipulating Senua's focus, illustrating her abstract attention to detail. While these puzzles can be clever, the same style occurs far too often, making some of the more drawn out sequences a chore. On the inverse, the moments where Senua is stripped of her senses and gear, forcing her to take a more subdued approach to avoid her enemies, felt far more engaging and interesting.

In one of the game's best moments, the shadows themselves serve to be a real danger as Senua rushes from one light source to another in a dark cavern, all the while memories of her torment and anguish come flooding in--obscuring your vision while she's making a dash to safety. These moments are a real highlight, channeling the same pulse-pounding sense of urgency found from set-piece moments in Resident Evil 4, making a seemingly simple objective into an unnerving experience--which in a way truly sums up what Hellblade is about. While these moments serve to be some of Hellblade's most profound and affecting moments, it uses them sparingly to help break-up general puzzle solving and obstacles, which feel somewhat bland by comparison.

While Senua experiences many dangers, such as the horrific hallucinations of the dead, immolation by a mad fire god, and ravenous beasts that hide in the shadows--there is one threat that constantly looms over her that can result in dire consequences. Early on, Senua is infected with a corruption known as The Dark Rot, which continues to spread after she 'dies' or fails a set-piece event. She passes failure and death off as another hallucination, but with every failure the infection spreads, and after multiple deaths it reaches her head. The result of this is Senua succumbing to her illness, forcing you to restart from the beginning of her journey.

Despite the inclusion of a permadeath mechanic, Hellblade is still a largely fair game. Taking around eight hours to clear on the hardest difficulty, and experiencing only a handful of deaths--mostly on account of some overly vague and awkward objectives coming off as obtuse, breaking the flow of traversal--the game is largely balanced with its pacing and difficulty. It even goes as far as to offer an auto-scaling difficulty system that adjusts based on how you're playing. Interestingly, there's no tutorial whatsoever in Hellblade, prompting you to learn the system by doing and listening to prompts from your inner voices.

Over the course of its journey, Hellblade keeps its gameplay lean in order to not overstay its welcome. Despite the complexity of the narrative and its presentation, combat only happens when it needs to, and puzzle solving and set-piece moments often drive the story forward to reveal more about Senua's motivations. Which in turn reveals the struggles that torment her, preventing her from moving on.

Hellblade's most notable achievement is the handling of an incredibly sensitive subject matter within an engaging and well-crafted action/adventure game. At its heart, the story is about Senua's struggle to come to terms with her illness. In the process, she learns to find the strength within herself to endure, and to make peace with her past. And in a profound and physical way, we go through those same struggles with her, and come away with a better understanding of a piece of something that many people in the world struggle with.

Editor's note: We have updated this review to reflect our time with the Xbox One version of Hellblade. We tested the game on an Xbox One X. -- April 6, 2018

Minit Review - Gone In 60 Seconds

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 04/03/2018 - 14:00

Time is not often a resource that you need to think about when going on an adventure. Zelda patiently waits in Hyrule Castle while Link finishes up shrines in Breath of the Wild, the religious zealots in Far Cry 5 let you fish in peace, and even the merry band of travelling friends in Final Fantasy XV find downtime during crisis. Minit doesn’t subscribe to such design, and instead puts emphasis on the need to hurry. Its strict 60-second time limit is an ever-present threat as you dig up the world’s secrets around you, dispel a cruel curse, and attempt to bring peace to the land.

Minit begins with your unnamed hero happening upon a cursed sword, plunging you into a cycle of infinite minute-long sessions that always end with your death. Each time you respawn, the counter restarts, and you’re transported back to your last resting place. New resting places can be unlocked by walking into them throughout the map, but simply finding them in time is a task. You’ll need to uncover routes with your sword, chopping down shrubs to find new pathways to new areas on the edges of your 4:3 screen. Building a mental map of the world around you is paramount next to your ability to both avoid threats and find the shortest path to an objective, and it can feel like a punishing exercise at first.

But it doesn’t take long for Minit to find a rhythm that’s intoxicating. Each new character you meet bears a personality that can be equally inviting or aggressive, some wanting to help you along your journey and others just wanting to be left alone. Shopkeepers offer bite-sized quests for you to try and complete in the limited time you have, tempting you with rewards on completion. Clearing out an area of crabs or gathering a certain number of hidden coins can reward you with seemingly non-descript items like gardening gloves and watering cans. But these tools open the rest of Minit’s world to you, letting you move large blocks obscuring paths or chopping down trees that would otherwise act as a dead-end.

Just like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (which also worked around the idea of limited time runs), certain objects and effects you've made on Minit’s world persist between run-throughs. For example, obtaining an item will store it permanently in your inventory or make it available to pick up at your last resting place. While some objects will return to their default position and block paths you may have already traversed, more story-centric events will remain in the state you left them in. A wandering spirit in the endless desert will stay dead after you’ve defeated it, and the lost guests of a strange hotel won’t wander off again after you’ve found them. These act as milestones to your progress through Minit, always giving you something on the horizon to chase down.

Chasing these leads requires both experimentation and exploration. Very often you’ll come across a perplexing area with new objects that seem static and immune to any of your efforts. Sometimes all an area’s mysteries seem obvious in hindsight, and yet Minit’s minimalistic yet emotive art does well to hide secrets in plain sight. It was nearly an hour into my first run until I realized I should be looking for coins in pots scattered around the world, or that my attacks on nearby characters could trigger new dialogue options. Poking and prodding Minit’s world is intrinsic to your progress, and it’s easy to find yourself lost in loops of deaths simply trying to figure out the next step forward. These instances might be frustrating, but they never go unrewarded. Minit is bursting at the seams with secrecy and mystery, so much so that it’s hard to soak in all at once. A generous New Game+ mode ups the ante with a shorter lifespan and new challenges but entices you to dive back in as soon as the credits roll to lap up any remaining secrets.

Movement and some incredibly simplistic combat are your only other concerns, both of which see slight enhancements near the end of the two-or-so-hour adventure. Minit is clearly designed to be easy to pick up and play, allowing its world and riddles to provide the challenge. It’s easy to avoid combat entirely unless specified by a task, for example. Movement, in turn, is more focused on puzzle-solving than dexterity and skill. A maze in a mysterious tomb in the desert requires you to run faster than you might envision possible, while another experiments with your perception of how you’re able to move boxes around a series of conveyor belts to disrupt a production line. Minit never feels unforgiving, instead giving you reason to give pause and think about how you’re moving around its world.

It’s almost unbelievable how much character Minit packs into its monochromatic world, too. Despite adapting the style of old Game Boy titles, Minit’s range of animations and neat pixel-based touches root it firmly in modern design. Little dust trails that kick off your boots in a sprint and the blinding flashes of white and black streaks when you find a new item offer contrasting senses of style; Minit is delicate when it needs to be and bombastic elsewhere, but it uses all these elements to deliver important feedback to you. It’s perhaps why it’s hard to get entirely lost at any point, because there’s always a cleverly placed marker sitting in plain sight just edging you towards the next solution. Design like that is hard to come by, so it’s refreshing to see Minit pull it off so effortlessly.

Minit’s soundtrack is also rousingly enthralling, instilling each of its distinct regions with a sense of place and sound. There’s catchy chiptunes for a seaside town that makes up most of the game’s opening and appropriate silence in the ominous, depressing tunnels of a dangerous mine. Sound effects are used sparingly but to equal effect. The chimes build with a delightful track when you acquire a new item and come crashing down with a thud every time you miss an objective with a second to spare. It’s delightful, and just wraps the entire presentation of Minit up with a neat little bow.

Minit’s lives might only last 60 seconds, but its extremely well-thought-out world design and engrossing loop of progress make it a curse-filled adventure that is worth dying the world over for. Its throwback to classic visuals aren’t done for aesthetic alone, as none of its gameplay systems scream antiquity. It’s a slickly presented adventure that continually manages to surprise you with every new area you uncover or item you procure, pushing you to pick away at its seams to uncover every drop of what it has to offer. With a delightful ending and more promised after its first run of credits, Minit is far more than just a collection of seconds.

Kerbal Space Program: Making History Review - Shoot For The Mun

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/29/2018 - 20:00

The famous Einstein quote that "science is never finished" has never been more perfectly exemplified in a video game than in Kerbal Space Program. After four years in official release, and what felt like a lifetime in early access, the game has provided a deeply impressive set of tools to experiment with, explore, and imagine the possibilities of space travel. In fact, that toolset is so deep, and the game's enraptured fanbase so committed, that it's hard to not see the first official expansion, Making History, as being behind the curve.

The biggest thing Making History adds to the game is a set of missions branded as milestone events in Kerbal astronautical history. Most are modeled after real-world space excursions like the Apollo and Soyuz missions, and there are a few less-realistic scenarios thrown in for good measure, including one that essentially feels like an official Kerbal remake of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. It feels like a deliberate, well-curated collection of content that introduces a slew of new parts and vehicles to tinker with. Your performance during these missions are also scored and can be compared to how the rest of the community fared, which is a nice little plus. There's tons of value to be had trying to figure out how best to execute the mission, how best to deploy a ship's resources and crew, or how to efficiently manage an emergency, and there are certainly plenty of those moments to be expected.

These missions are only the beginning, though, as the expansion also brings an official mission editor to the game. Given the aforementioned variables that go into every mission, as you might expect, the tool allowing you to create new missions is just as astoundingly complex. You design new aspects for a mission using a series of linked windows, telling the editor where you want players to start, which craft they'll start with, what the end goal is, what the flight conditions will be, any environmental hazards you wish to add, and what the win state will be.

It's a bit of a mess, though. You can't just click through a menu, choose specific variables for each section and move on. Most of the more elaborate scenarios you could think up involve multiple aspects that need to be linked together using a strange, unwieldy process between option boxes. For my part, all I wanted was to try out the Armageddon scenario of taking off from Earth and slingshotting around the moon (or, rather, the Kerbals' Mun) to land on an asteroid, and I could barely get the mission editor to register the correct flight trajectory. There's a tutorial in the mode that runs you through the basics of using the editor, but just like the tutorial in the core game, it fails to adequately explain the minutiae. Much of what the average player will create (without hours of practice, at least) is the result of trial and error more than actual vision. For what it's worth, this is generally the way everything in Kerbal Space Program works.

The overarching irony of the expansion, however, is that while new players may be stymied by the editor for hours on end, veterans will have likely already taken full advantage of the legion of mods floating out there for the game, already accessible through the main menu. Aside from the specialized winning and scoring parameters, the official editor seems almost redundant.

There are very dedicated players and creators out there, however, and the expansion most definitely gives those folks more to play with, which has led to some wondrous, fascinating and, yes, absolutely frustrating new player-made missions. Disaster scenarios seem to be a particular specialty, and it has honestly been more captivating to put out situational fires--rescuing a stranded Kerbal, stopping a space station's spin in close to low orbit--than to make things fly on a straight path. Making History certainly adds more to Kerbal Space Program, and those who've already poured hundreds of hours into the game may be grateful for the tiny cache of new supplies it introduces. But in this particular space race, players have already been to the Moon (sorry, Mun) and back long before developer Squad unveiled its new rockets.

Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength Review - Staunch Surveillance

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/29/2018 - 15:00

2016’s Orwell tapped into our collective fears about online surveillance, the manipulation of information, and our fast-eroding sense of personal privacy in the digital age. In 2018, these problems are more pronounced and have manifested in new ways. Orwell: Ignorance is Strength has launched upon a world where the term "fake news" carries very specific connotations, and where political divisiveness is, in many parts of the world, leading to mass-protests and widespread unease, a lot of which is being channelled through the internet. The Orwell games are very much a product of their time, but unfortunately Ignorance is Strength does not resonate as hard as its predecessor did.

The events of Ignorance is Strength occur concurrently with the first three episodes of the original game, but while there's some occasional overlap you're primarily focused on an entirely separate case. Barring one new element, the gameplay is mostly identical to the first game, which you should play first if you have any interest in this follow-up--some knowledge about the "The Nation" (the fictional country the game is set in) and the technology you're in charge of is assumed. You play as an investigator, charged with digging through the internet for information that will serve the interests of the country's corrupt government.

Initially you're searching for details about Oleg Bakay, a missing military officer from neighboring country Parges. Soon--and for the remainder of the game--your focus shifts to Raban Vhart, a blogger whose anti-government sentiments and campaign against the leadership of The Nation (which is, yes, run by a man who looks a bit like Trump) must be thwarted. You are, essentially, the bad guy, running surveillance for a dictatorship that demands absolute fealty from the citizens it so closely monitors, but Ignorance is Strength is less explicit about the meaning behind all of this than the first game was. While Orwell stretched across five episodic instalments, Ignorance is Strength runs for just three, which winds up being too little time to build upon the previously established mythology of the game's world. The broader political climate of The Nation, the appropriately Orwellian setting for both games, isn't expanded upon much by Raban's war against it, and while a conflict with Parges is discussed it's never quite explored enough to feel like a proper plot point.

Your job is to find chunks of data online using the computer interface of the Orwell surveillance system, then throw as much dirt as you can at Raban. If a piece of information on a page can be collected, it will be highlighted, and you can drag it to their profile on your screen. You find this information by scouring websites (although annoyingly you can't "search" for sites; you either find links on sites you have already accessed or gain a new site for your database after grabbing a data chunk), and when you manage to find someone's phone or computer details you can snoop through their private screens too. Pages that haven't been fully explored, or which have data chunks you haven't lifted, are highlighted on your list of pages visited. Each piece of information you collect will eat up ten minutes on your in-game clock, and in each of the game's three episodes you're working towards a specific time limit, so you want to focus on the important information and skip over any data that does not add to the case you're building.

Sometimes data will contradict with other chunks, and as the Investigator it's up to you to choose which one to submit. The "Ethical Codex" mandate means that your supervisor is only privy to information you submit, and will make informed decisions based on that. The way the plot progresses will be influenced by which statements you decide are more valid, as you can't submit two contradictory pieces. It's an implausible system, but from a game design perspective it's a clever one, forcing you into regular moral dilemmas.

The stakes feel muted this time, though. In episode 2, for example, if you gather too much useless information without finding a specific important detail, Raban will publish an anti-government blog post before you can stop him. Raban isn't a talented writer, and while he has a following, his posts largely read as hysterical, which is a strange tone to hit. He drops a genuine revelation in the first episode, but for the remainder of the game Raban seems like someone who is fast unravelling, and who the leaders of The Nation could probably comfortably ignore, having successfully implemented a surveillance state and perfected the dissemination of propaganda in ways that make Raban's stand largely ineffective. It also doesn't help that the game, which is so text-heavy, has several issues with grammar, punctuation and sentence syntax, at least some of which seem unintentional. They're minor problems, but over time they become distracting.

It's up to you to discredit Raban by investigating his personal life and past, which becomes the driving force of the second and third episodes. You're essentially asked to destroy a man's life, and it can be distressingly satisfying when you dig up the appropriate dirt on him. The human drama at the game's heart is the most compelling aspect of its plot, especially once you start to investigate Raban's wife and brother. A few twists in the story are telegraphed too heavily to have an impact, but the experience of taking available information about a man's life and using it to destroy him--by any means necessary--is just the right level of disturbing.

The third and final episode introduces a new wrinkle: the Influencer Tool, which lets you gather information and broadcast to the world, obscuring the truth by cherry-picking certain information to reach conclusions that ignore specific inconvenient details. The Influencer Tool taps into our worst fears--our secrets and our private conversations being exposed against our will, and our moments of weakness being read as our true selves coming out. The balance between your personal satisfaction over achieving in-game goals and the horror of what you're doing, coupled with the plausibility of these tools being used against someone, can lead to serious self-reflection, even if the man you're taking apart isn't the most compelling figure. It's a shame that these moments are fairly fleeting--Ignorance is Strength would have benefited greatly from a few extra chapters to really emphasize the tragedy of what is happening.

Orwell: Ignorance is Strength does not leave as strong an impression as the first game did, even if the central mechanics are still inherently compelling. There's not quite enough space for the game to breathe, and the interesting ideas, like the Influencer Tool, could be taken further. As a series, Orwell is brimming with potential, but it feels like the sequel was rushed to ensure that it could comment on the state of the world in early 2018. But extensive private data collection, political turmoil, and pervasive surveillance aren't going anywhere, which is why the game's namesake, George Orwell, has remained so perpetually relevant. If there's a third Orwell game, hopefully Osmotic Studios will find more to say about it.

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