A world, broken at the hands of technological progress, decays in silence and darkness. Cowed and enslaved people shuffle mindlessly through the streets. Overseers dressed in masks and black clothes stand at the corners, waiting for one of the slaves to fall out of line, watching the soulless masses as they are forced to jump and dance. A featureless boy in the midst of it all walks through this dystopia wearing a red shirt, one of the only touches of color in this oppressive world.
This is Inside, the second game from Limbo developer Playdead. Like Limbo, the gameplay is simple: you have to walk, jump, and grab objects in order to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. Ultimately, however, the game is about your journey through a tyrannical, unknowable, and apocalyptic world. Over the course of a few hours, you descend ever deeper into the heart of a malicious and immense construct that threatens to suffocate agency and humanity.
Limbo followed a character moving through a strange and primitive land. Death came easily to the character, but it rarely felt like murder. Inside, on the other hand, exudes violence, cruelty, and artifice. The game highlights the old and shattered parts of a society that you discover has been dragged into a hell of human experimentation.
As you progress through Inside, you experience stretches of quiet and calm punctuated by flashes of complete absurdity. The game encourages you to relish these often shocking or brutal twists, which incite feelings of revulsion and confusion. They make you want to know more.
These moments remain vivid in my memory even a few days after completing the game. A mindless horde of figures followed me off a cliff only to slam into the ground, creating a squelchy pile of flesh. A wispy, feminine creature tenaciously stalked me through underwater regions. I led my character to many deaths that were immediate and gruesome. I loved the game most during its quiet lulls when the oppressive feeling of the world was most apparent, but the in-your-face moments showed a different and darkly comedic side of Inside. I sometimes couldn't help but laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of what it threw at me.
Solving puzzles can be as simple as moving a box up to the base of a high ledge in order to jump up to the top, or as complex as synchronizing multiple automatons to flip switches, lift objects, and move carts so that you can open a door. Some early puzzles rely more on cautious movement than logic as you attempt to avoid murder or abduction at the hands of masked figures. Later puzzles, on the other hand, require more patience and thought. Some make you open sequences of doors to move objects through a room, while others require delicately timed jumps or switches to complete.
There comes a time when Inside leans too heavily on its puzzles to keep you engaged. In these moments, I felt that my driving motivation had shifted from exploring the world to simply flipping the right switch. It's a problem that plagued Limbo, and Inside nearly falls into a similar trap in its middle act when it takes you deep underground. You must complete the game's most time-consuming puzzles during its most narrative-light sections, and the suspense that the game worked so hard to build nearly falls apart.
Fortunately, this issue evaporates as the game enters its final act, when the world and puzzles again form a cohesive bond. Inside is at its best when it doesn't feel like you're doing puzzles at all, but rather avoiding obstacles and finding paths through a dangerous space. As Inside nears its conclusion, the puzzles strengthen the sense of exploration that defines the rest of the game.
Much of Inside's success in storytelling comes from its visual design. The game is gorgeous, with a simple but evocative art style defined by muted colors and featureless figures. Gone are the indistinct backgrounds of Limbo; Inside's environments are richly detailed and full of motion and secrets. For example, you might find smoke still wisping from a candle in a recently abandoned room, a truck full of automatons departing right as you enter a new screen, viewing platforms used to watch slaves dance, or the massive shadowy shapes of the compound's machinery looming far off in the background.
Inside's use of sound and music is occasionally breathtaking. You never hear voices, but each setting has its own unique noises. As I moved through a forest, pine trees rustled, rocks clacked against each other, and leaves crunched under my feet. In the compound, a pulsing, rhythmic noise accompanied my journey, a constant and unsettling reminder of the world's heartlessness. Music is used sparingly, but when it swells, even minor events like exiting a building became points fixed in my memory.
All of it--the setting, the sound, the beautiful art--builds to the discovery of the secret of this compound, but what I found at the end almost ruined the entire experience. Subtlety was thrown out the window and I was left reeling, unable to process the turn. The oppressive, quiet, slow-moving, and mysterious story that dominated most of the game changed in a flash of complete absurdity. I didn't know whether to laugh or yell in horror as Inside twisted in on itself. When the credits began to crawl, I sat in silence for a few minutes, unable to decide what to make of it.
But as time passed, those final moments grew on me. I still find the ending somewhat odd, but upon playing through Inside a second time, I found endearing elements that fit with the overall story more effectively than I first thought. The ending is self-aware in a way that is simultaneously overwrought and humorous, poking fun at itself and at Limbo. It's also cathartic, releasing all of the tension that built over the rest of Inside in one scene.
This is a beautiful, haunting, and memorable game, a worthy follow-up to Limbo. Its puzzles, although rarely difficult, are engaging complements to the story. The real achievement of this game, though, is the way that it crafts its narrative: detailed environments convey the bizarre world that you travel through; introspective moments are filled with minimalist sound design and just the barest touches of music; and the things you must do to complete your journey force you to confront the realities of humanity, freedom, and existence. The puzzles might not bring you back to play it again, but the opportunity to learn more about the world alone is enough motivation to return to Inside's dystopia.
The King of Fighters XIV is yet another satisfying entry in the long-running KOF series. It ditches the intricate sprites found in recent games in the series in favor of 3D characters and backgrounds, though battles still take place on a 2D plane. This change is bound to turn off those who might favor the series' traditional visual style; however, the game's core fighting system lives up to the series’ legacy, offering new mechanics that expand upon those from its predecessor. KOF 14 is an engrossing fighter that exceeds the initial impressions of its bland presentation, delivering an experience well worth your time, whether you're a dedicated KOF follower or a casual fighting game fan.
KOF 14 pits your side against teams of three fighters in a series of one-on-one battles; when one character is defeated, the next one is brought into battle and a new round begins. Returning players will notice the difference in movement speed from past games right away; the game seemingly slows down the energetic action of KOF 13, but this doesn't diminish the exciting nature of fights. Battles remain tense and exhilarating, especially once you get a feel for the pace of combat and combo timing.Fights are as tense and exciting as ever.
Many familiar faces from the series’ 22-year history return, while a host of new characters enter the fray to mix up the series' already diverse set of fighting styles. It’s uplifting to see such a robust cast, but it’s unfortunate that the visuals do little to bring their large personalities to life. The new 3D character models, while serviceable, are stiffly animated and occasionally doll-like in appearance. They’re a far cry from the dynamic 2D sprites of the past, showcasing only a faint glimmer of what made these characters so memorable and endearing.
Despite the less-than-stellar visuals, KOF 14’s new fighting system is its most striking quality. It streamlines mechanics we’ve seen in the past, while introducing expansive techniques and options for combos. The result is a fighting system that's easier to understand and more fulfilling to engage with.
The game presents three major mechanics to manage: Max Mode, Super/Advanced/Climax Cancels, and Rush. Max Mode is a cross between KOF 13's EX Specials and Hyperdrive Mode--it’s a state you trigger that grants you the ability to perform more powerful versions of your character’s special moves. These prove useful in turning the tide of battle, since these beefed-up moves can be linked with other moves to create even more powerful combos. Max Mode can be activated whenever you have a super meter to spare.The iconic rivalry continues.
Then there’s the multiple ways of canceling moves into supers, which is the game’s bread and butter for executing destructive combos. Each allows you to cancel a certain move into a type of super special move at the cost of a set amount of super meter. When executed properly, canceling can be an effective means of finishing off opponents when you’re in a tight spot. It’s also an especially user-friendly mechanic that’s far easier to execute than the complicated Drive Cancels from KOF 13. Canceling out of one attack and beginning another more powerful one allows you to turn a single move into a custom combo, and with three ways to cancel moves in KOF 14, this opens up a wealth of opportunities for players of all skill levels to deliver a series of devastating attacks.
Lastly, Rush is a unique combo that you can perform by repeatedly pressing light punch. Similar to Persona 4 Arena’s auto combo, the attack is suited for beginners looking for a way to strike back at their opponent. This may raise red flags for advanced players; however, the attack is balanced accordingly, requiring you to be right next to an opponent in order to perform it. Rush also does comparatively little damage when you stack it up against the game's powerful combos.
These new mechanics help make KOF 14's combo-focused fighting system less convoluted and more straightforward; it’s the most accessible entry in the series thus far. That isn't to say that it downplays the finesse and strategic planning of the game. You’re still required to understand the fundamentals of execution and positioning if you want to be able to fully take advantage of the offensive and defensive capabilities available.There's a wide variety of different characters, each with distinct movesets.
The coalescing of these mechanics makes performing devastating combos easier, which increases the stakes of a fight--one wrong move could result in a punishing reprisal that costs you half your life bar. However, the odds are tipped in your favor the more of your team’s roster is eliminated since the game provides additional super meter bars on top of your base ones during consecutive lost rounds. You may end up with five super meter bars during the final round of a match, which can be a lifesaver if you're able to find an opening to initiate a comeback. While this might seem imbalanced at first, it gives the losing player opportunity to even the odds, so that by the time the match reaches its final round, both sides are on equal footing. Still, it’s unfortunate that a combo-breaker move (in the vein of Guilty Gear’s Burst mechanic) wasn’t implemented to better give newcomers a chance to stave off opponents with higher combo literacy.
Thankfully, the path to understanding the intricacies of KOF 14 is a welcoming one, since the game offers a multitude of tutorials to get you up to speed on the series’ established mechanics, such as rolls, blowbacks, and the all the different types of jumps. There’s also a Trial mode that educates you on the combos you can perform with each character, providing a general idea of which attacks and special moves each character can link together.
Once you’ve outfitted yourself with the basic knowledge to fight, KOF 14 offers plenty of modes in which to test your skills. Like past games, there's a story mode that allows you to fight against 10 stages’ worth of CPU opponents, but if you're expecting anything similar to the recent story modes from other fighters, like Street Fighter V or Mortal Kombat X, you're going to be disappointed. The narrative is vague and nearly non-existent, setting up--in three brief cutscenes--a much larger conflict that's likely to continue in later installments. Fortunately, the game includes ending cutscenes for each of the canonical teams to help bookend your journey and provide slight context over the events that took place.
If you're looking to compete against other players online, the good news is that servers are smooth and stable thus far. It also helps that your online activities are initiated via matchmaking rooms, where up to 12 players can join in and slot into separate rooms within to play exhibition matches of a chosen mode. The format is intuitive and keeps you from having to constantly search for a new room after every match just to find another opponent--though you'll be resorting to this in Ranked mode. It's also a great way to interact with multiple players at once via voice chat or text, testing your skills, asking questions, or discussing strategies.
With plenty of opportunities available online or off, KOF 14 is a well-executed addition to the revered fighting series. Those disappointed in its new visuals may be unwilling to give it a chance, but if you remain steadfast in parsing through the multiple layers of its mechanics, you'll be rewarded with one of the most accessible, satisfying entries in the series to date.
The way I play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided may not be the same way you play it. When I step into the shoes of Adam Jensen, I avoid conflict, drink all the alcohol I find, and stop bad guys from doing terrible things by releasing pheromones into the air and then asking politely. I like to sneak through areas without hurting anyone if possible, and prefer to knock someone out and hide their body if I really need them out of the way. But occasionally, I want to role-play a cyberpunk bad-ass who doesn't take trash from anybody, letting my magnum revolver do the talking when I enter a room. Deus Ex lets me do all these things, and doesn't punish me for solving problems one way over another. The series is characteristically defined by giving you choices--a variety of ways to tackle given situations like armed conflict, social interactions, and branches in storyline. Mankind Divided is no different. There is no wrong way to play, and the game rewards you for achieving things with your personally preferred method, no matter what that may involve.
Every obstacle in the cyberpunk world of Mankind Divided has multiple solutions, provided you've invested in certain abilities. For conflict scenarios, there are more than enough tools provided for a direct approach--a variety of lethal and non-lethal guns, grenades and ammo which fire and explode wonderfully, and cybernetic augmentations that can give you temporary buffs like heavy armor or slowing down time. Shooting controls well--it feels effortless to transition from first-person aiming into third-person cover mechanics, change ammo types quickly, and smoothly line up headshots with iron sights. Entering a room while firing a shotgun, then finishing off the last couple of enemies with a lethal takedown feels exceptional.
Alternatively, there are robust stealth mechanics that let you slip quickly and accurately from cover to cover, see enemy sightlines, and let you turn temporarily invisible. If enemies hear or see you they'll transition into a suspicious state where they will attempt to confirm your presence before turning hostile, and this can be used to your advantage. Throwing objects or intentionally making a noise can lure a guard to a particular area, letting you silently take them out or slip past them unnoticed. You can also use hacking skills and have fun taking advantage of the game’s futuristic setting, turning sentry robots, automated turrets, and the environment against aggressors without drawing attention to Jensen himself.
But no matter how you decide to go about solving a problem, there is always a thrill when you succeed, and the game dishes out experience points no matter which actions you take. This means killing enemies is just as satisfying as slipping past them without raising suspicion. Punching through a wall is as fulfilling as stealing a keycard and just using the door. There is no superior way to complete a task.
Killing enemies is just as satisfying as slipping past them without raising suspicion. Punching through a wall is as fulfilling as stealing a keycard and just using the door.
During investigation scenarios, the direct approach may require you to manually hack into computer terminals in order to procure the information you need, or craft tools to do the hacking for you. If you have the patience though, coercing knowledge out of a citizen or spending time snooping around for clues can also provide what you need. It's refreshing to play a game where different routes can not only be equally successful, but flexible as well. Being an expert in one field doesn't necessarily lock you out of another.
Mankind Divided introduces a handful of new augmentation abilities for Jensen on top of those introduced in the previous game, Human Revolution. Some of these new augs are more interesting than others though; Remote Hacking is invaluable for disabling automated obstacles at a distance, and Icarus Dash is a powerful tool for discreet traversal. However the TESLA, PEPS, and Nanoblade abilities achieve similar effects to some of the game's more conventional weapons--they stun and kill enemies from a distance. There are some advantages to using them, but most of the time I wished I had spent points elsewhere.
What's interesting about these new abilities is that with their introduction comes with a caveat: to equip them, players must disable one of their other augmentations to avoid putting strain on Jensen’s predominantly cybernetic body, and risking negative effects. Initially, this "Overclocking" system makes for tantalizing dilemmas. The necessity of permanently disabling some skills in order to power others early in the campaign made me stop and seriously think about how I would be handling situations in the future. Not all augments can be disabled (you can’t disable your HUD, for instance) but when I decided to enable Remote Hacking, I made the tough decision to disable something seemingly essential--the ability to mark and track enemies.
However, as I earned more skill points I decided to experiment, activating multiple new abilities at once without disabling others. The unfortunate revelation was that despite characters and the augmentation menu telling me I was at a critical status and needed to disable more abilities, I experienced no serious detrimental effects that made completing missions any more difficult than usual--a brief radar glitch was the worst I saw. Even more annoyingly, a later plot event re-enabled my once permanently disabled talents. Although being able to unlock and use all abilities in a single playthrough of Deus Ex is near impossible, it was disappointing to see a consequential, weighty choice made inconsequential.
Mankind Divided continues with the series' portrayal of a cyberpunk dystopia with a focus on the politics around people with cybernetic implants, and the subsequent implications on the definitions of humanity. The plot involves countless government bodies, corporations, security forces, underground resistances, even the Illuminati--and the events of Mankind Divided frame suspicion on literally every organisation and individual it introduces. This makes it impossible to trust any one character other than Jensen as you search for evidence revealing the motives and masterminds behind a number of terrorist acts. Deciding which organisation to aid and which to deceive during pivotal plot moments is grueling because everything is so unyieldingly grey. The world and attitudes of characters can vary depending on your choices and actions, and even the game's dozen or so side missions take dramatic twists and press you to make difficult decisions--many involve the ethics of hypotheticals our present-day society has yet to encounter--and there are no right answers.
It's easy to become completely engrossed in this morally ambiguous chess game, with so many unknown factors lurking beneath the surface. But the lack of a clear antagonist or driving purpose at any one time can lead to temporary disillusionment, with no one enemy ever standing in the metaphorical crosshairs for too long. The upside to this is that Mankind Divided doesn't feature the ill-received boss battles that appeared in Human Revolution, and remains purely as a series of increasingly challenging infiltration and investigation scenarios, all of which can be solved in the manner of your choosing. The pace of the game doesn't feel like one that's defined by a series of climactic acts, but a constant burn of tension and a chase for knowledge as mainline missions, hub exploration, and optional side missions bleed into one another.
The world of Deus Ex is an easy one to get completely absorbed in. The city hubs, all based in Prague, are where you'll spend most of your time and are stunningly well-realised. The streets are full of life and bold neon advertising. The futuristic buildings constructed among old-world European architecture and dilapidated housing make the city believable. You'll revisit locations and walk the same routes regularly in Mankind Divided, gaining an intimate knowledge of the streets and structures, and this knowledge is incredibly useful and satisfying to draw upon as new situations arise. One hub, Útulek Station, is a stunningly claustrophobic and oppressive multi-level slum, filled with ramshackle apartments and dense marketplaces which made me stop every few feet just to soak it all in.
Exploring these environments for information and scavenging for items is also immensely enjoyable. Spaces are filled with character, densely packed with discoveries to make about its inhabitants, and are exceptionally curated with subtlety. You might push unremarkable boxes on a shelf aside to pleasantly discover someone has hidden some rainy day cash behind them. You might look behind someone's couch to find that's where they stash a pistol, just in case. You may notice that despite his constant, over-the-top broody demeanor, Adam Jensen absolutely loves eating colorful, sugary cereal. Additionally, a portion of the game’s side missions are not explicitly marked, and only found by going out of your way to talk to certain people you may have otherwise run past. Mankind Divided rewards exploration, and its locations are delightful to explore.
Mankind Divided rewards exploration, and its locations are delightful to explore.
Mankind Divided also includes an asymmetrical online-only competitive mode called Breach. Breach uses the first-person combat, stealth and remote hacking mechanics of Deus Ex in brief, visually abstracted challenge missions with a focus on score-chasing, speedrunning, and beating other players. Augmentation abilities are also present, but Breach uses a slightly modified skill tree, and enforces stricter limitations--the player is able to unlock every upgrade, but they can only equip a limited number before going into each mission.
The tone of Breach is very different to the main campaign, with the emphasis not so much on the breadth of options available to you, but taking the path of least resistance. After playing through Adam Jensen's story as a Pacifist, Breach gave me much more license to experiment without consequence--racing around like a maniac, shooting non-human enemies and causing general chaos as I tried to climb the speedrun leaderboard. Breach mode also incorporates a career levelling system, similar to other multiplayer games, where you can earn "Booster Packs" containing randomised items like weapons, special ammo, one-time buffs and skill points to aid progress. I found this inclusion to be a little off-putting here, since one of Breach's draw cards for me was its skill-based leaderboards, and your performance can be significantly helped or hindered depending on what random drops you do or don't receive.
Although multiplayer-focused, Breach also attempts to tie directly into the Deus Ex universe. As you progress, new conspiracy stories arise and unlocking their details requires you to successfully collect a number of gems in particular missions. These are interesting to take in, but feel out of place within Breach. I would've rather uncovered these dark mysteries in the main game, rather than collecting gems and punching bright neon men in the face in an optional mode. Tonal confusion aside, Breach is still a pleasing way to hone your skills with Deus Ex's action mechanics.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided refines and reinforces the defining foundations of the series. It creates challenging situations and gives players the tools and flexibility to deal with them in a multitude of ways, all within an absorbing cyberpunk world. Although not a significant departure from Human Revolution, Mankind Divided is still a uniquely fulfilling experience, one which feels rare in games today.
Puzzle games and stealth adventures share many similarities. To succeed at both, you need to be smart, cunning, and calculated. You need to plan your moves several steps ahead, and you need to know exactly how everything around you is going to react. Sometimes you get lucky and fall headfirst into an unlikely solution. And both can empower you in ways that don't require you to pull a trigger and kill. Deus Ex Go excels at empowering players through the act of smart planning, and it doesn't let up until you've cleaned out every available puzzle.
Deus Ex Go is the newest entry in Square Enix's Go series, which converts franchises like Hitman and Tomb Raider into puzzle games. In Deus Ex Go, you control series protagonist Adam Jensen like you would a chess piece, moving around a board-like area, taking out enemies and slipping out of their paths. Each level requires you to get to the exit, while myriad obstacles--such as turrets, robots, and blocked paths--prevent you from heading directly to it. Many of the roadblocks require you to hack your way past them by visiting a terminal and drawing a path between it and the object you want to manipulate.
Solving Deus Ex Go's puzzles is incredibly satisfying. Never did I feel like one was something I had to brute force with trial-and-error to figure out. It's enjoyable to look at the game's puzzles and figure out what you can do to make your way through their hazards. Some solutions appropriately make you feel like a hacker, as though you’re tricking the game into letting you move on to the next level. It's hugely rewarding when you utilize an enemy to get past an obstacle, such as hiding behind it for cover or using it to deactivate terminals that grant access to new sections of the level.
When it comes to visuals, Deus Ex Go isn't quite as colorful or vibrant as its Go predecessors (Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go), opting instead for a starker, cleaner, more futuristic look. Additionally, it's the first game in the Go series to attempt a narrative. The story is set over the course of a single mission, where Jensen must save a person of some importance. However, things quickly spin out of control, forcing Jensen to solve a lot more puzzles than he initially thought he’d have to. While the story is given little attention and fails to capture your imagination, thankfully, the puzzles are more than enough to keep you moving forward until the credits roll.
In addition to the story, Deus Ex Go offers weekly sets of new puzzles that consist of five levels. Unfortunately, by the time I was done with the story and had moved on to the puzzles of the week, I wanted more than what the standard 54 levels offered. Hitman Go presents multiple objectives in each level, which encourages players to return for an additional challenge. Deus Ex Go only offers a single challenge for each level, and it's the same one every time: complete the puzzle in a certain number of steps. This offers some replayability, but it's not the most exciting reason to give a level another shot.
By the time I was done with the story and had moved on to the puzzles of the week, I wanted more than what the standard 54 levels offered.
Deus Ex Go offers microtransactions, and unfortunately, it asks you to pay for the solutions to puzzles. You should be able to learn how to get through a puzzle by observing what everything in the level does and reacts to, and using one of these paid-for solutions cheats you of the knowledge that makes Deus Ex Go special. Additionally, the microtransactions are priced in a way that encourages you to spend the most money possible. Two solutions cost nearly $3, while $10 will get you 25. With only 54 levels in the story, it would effectively ruin half the game to buy the $10 package. For such an incredible puzzle game, it's disappointing to see it tarnished with the option to pay your way through it.
Despite its few faults, Deus Ex Go remains an increasingly fun, rewarding puzzle-solving experience. It continues the Go series' streak of excellence and leaves me longing to know what developer Square Enix Montreal will do next with the franchise. Whatever it happens to be, if it's done with the same thoughtfulness that makes Deus Ex Go such a compelling puzzle experience, it'll be well worth playing.
The first impression you get of Bound is that of a platforming video game that uses interpretive dance as a foundation for all movement. It's only after the credits roll that you realize the reverse is true: Bound is an interactive, interpretive dance about a video game.
Bound speaks the language of games, but it’s only vaguely interested in fluency. It reproduces the basic elements in grand, abstract, poetic flourishes. Even the simple act of pressing the jump button creates a symphony of balletic movements from our brave heroine. Bound is less focused on presenting a series of challenges than it is in letting players participate in an interactive modern-dance performance.
The story of this particular libretto? A princess is tasked by her mother, the queen, to slay a giant monster that threatens to corrupt and destroy their kingdom. You must traverse the massive labyrinth that is their kingdom, tracking the beast at every turn until you get close enough to use your powers to undo its influence.
Bound's gameplay is rudimentary, consisting primarily of running, jumping across moving platforms, and climbing ladders. Most of what passes for challenge has to do with navigating the many alternate routes through the labyrinth, sussing out what's actually going to get you down to a lower level safely, what's an actual shortcut, and what may result in plunging to your doom.
But like Journey before it, the devil is in the details. Each stage is a cubist marvel, where every single element feels like it's forged from living, shattered stained glass. The game works wonders with this aesthetic, going from alien, gravity-defying architecture stretching into the stratosphere to vast, beautiful seas that roll out in waves for miles.
Repetitive as these actions can sometimes be, the game still deserves praise for creating a protagonist who neither looks nor moves like any other video game character: a lithe, masked hero whose smallest motion is an act of grace.
Then there's the princess herself--our heroic dancer who must travel the labyrinth. There isn't much to her from a mechanical standpoint. She can run and jump, and in lieu of an attack, she can perform an elaborate dance that allows her to traipse through dangerous environments unscathed. It's a wonderful idea, albeit somewhat undercooked. You can put some variations on the dance with simple button combinations, but doing so doesn't serve a meaningful purpose. Repetitive as these actions can sometimes be, the game still deserves praise for creating a protagonist who neither looks nor moves like any other video game character: a lithe, masked hero whose smallest motion is an act of grace.
Like all interpretive dance, this is all a metaphor for something much more cerebral, presented through the frame of scenes set in the real world--adding the right amount of context to make parsing your journey insightful and rewarding. The ultimate meaning of Bound's tale relies on your own perspective, but there's a subtle-yet-undeniable emotional weight from beginning to end. Bound is a game that displays immense amounts of contemplation and ambition in every aspect except gameplay.
And yet, to decry it for its overly simplistic mechanics is to ultimately miss the forest for the trees. Bound is digital art installation. It's only in the game's final moments, when you're able to view the full breadth of the work, that it's clear this is a work of art that could not be accomplished in any other medium but this one.
No Man's Sky is an exploration game set in a vast galaxy of over 18 quintillion planets. Each one is massive--too big for any one person to explore fully in the span of a day--and if you’re the first to discover one, you not only get to name it, you also get first dibs on any discoveries contained within. This is a game about travel, survival, and commerce, backed by impressive tech that allows for near seamless transitions from ground to space. There are multiple layers to consider, and while some details will make your journey feel more genuine, there are flaws that occasionally derail your investment in the odyssey. However, there's an intriguing narrative that contextualizes your in-game actions, making for a fascinating experience that ultimately trumps issues that appear early on.
Like the location and composition of each planet, most of the things you see and interact with in No Man's Sky have been arranged by an algorithm. You may find joy in identifying and cataloging new plant and animal species, of which there are plenty. The sheer number of possible variations of worlds and wild species is too large to fully comprehend, but because the variety is defined by a computer pulling from a restricted pool of options, animals appear more like slapdash creations than thoughtful constructions. No matter how immediately strange and amusing your first dozen encounters with nature are, these sightings start to feel rote after only a few hours because every living thing is weird in one way or another. They can't all be special.
If biology isn't your bag, you can spend your days mining planets for resources that you can sell to other traders in space stations, mix to craft simple goods and accessories, or store as fuel reserves for your gear and starship. With your gun-like mining tool, you’ll spend hours tearing through rocks, plants, and asteroids in search of commodities. As is the case with wildlife, planets aren't guaranteed to have what you're looking for--some are barren, others offer untold bounties, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle.
As you explore, you have to monitor your exosuit equipment to maintain protection from hazardous conditions--and, occasionally, to recover from a violent encounter. Combat is a secondary activity, but it occurs often enough to make the game's unrefined controls a bigger issue. As you mine planets, security drones belonging to an unknown entity will attack if you’re too brazen or greedy. Aiming the weapon component of your multitool is finicky enough to make these encounters more of an annoyance than an enjoyable challenge. In space, you may cross paths with space pirates--usually one or a group of three. These battles, again, lack excitement and depth.
Unlike planets, which often feel plausible and unpredictable, NPCs you meet in space stations and outposts lack distinct personalities. They are siloed in repetitive and predictable structures, existing solely to serve as the other party during an exchange of words and goods. At best, you can learn bits of each species' lexicon by discovering translation monoliths on planets, but even this process lacks substance. While it can be somewhat gratifying to see previously garbled speech slowly turn into recognizable words over dozens of hours, trader dialogue remains stiff and impersonal, only pertaining to the events at hand. Even when you fail to understand what another being is saying, your character's inner dialogue paints a clear picture of the situation, allowing you to easily make logical, lucrative decisions.
Your starship and exosuit have a limited number of slots that can hold stacks of resources or be used to apply equipment upgrades. You gain new slots for your exosuit and have the option to purchase new starships with greater storage capacity, but no matter how many slots you have, you'll always crave more. So you try to be efficient and work with what you have, but No Man's Sky doesn't make it easy. You have to navigate a plain grid of items using a slow-moving cursor, holding down a button for seconds at a time to confirm every action. Managing your inventory is a large part of No Man's Sky, and it's made more difficult than it needs to be.
Starships come in a range of models, with varying color palettes and accessories, and while you may get lucky and find a wrecked ship to repair and call your own, working models are readily available in space-station hangars, where traders come and go in real time. The wait-and-see approach to ship shopping can be a tad boring, but when one you love coasts into view and you can afford it, you feel rejuvenated. When you have a fresh new ride, it doesn't feel like your efforts planetside were in vain--they’re the reason you can afford an upgrade.
No matter how many solar systems you jump to or planets you explore on the "direct" path to the center of the galaxy, you'll grow tired of repetitive NPC interactions and the planets' implied-but-shallow variety, and you’ll lose interest in new ships--and perhaps the journey altogether.
As time goes on, however, you may lose the high that came from your new purchase and seek another. No Man's Sky pitches material pursuits as its reason for being in that all of its systems are in support of making big money to afford big purchases, but the loop eventually wears thin, and you grow increasingly immune to the thrill of purchasing new toys. Even envy creeps in when a fancy ship passes you by, which often leads to begrudgingly mining on any planet with the goods, regardless of how depressing or empty it may be.
In a galaxy with no real friends or social ties, it's easy to look at possessions as a way to curb loneliness and provide meaning to your journey. You're given little direction other than to try to get to the center of the galaxy. When you begin nearly 180,000 light-years away from the center and each black hole carries you, on average, about 1,000 light-years forward, it's tough to feel like you're making progress. No matter how many solar systems you jump to or planets you explore on the "direct" path to the center of the galaxy, you'll grow tired of repetitive NPC interactions and the planets' implied-but-shallow variety, and you’ll lose interest in new ships--and perhaps the journey altogether.
However, there is another way to play No Man's Sky that skirts open-ended meandering. Tucked neatly into the galaxy is a narrative path, delivered so subtly that you may miss the fact that the first decision you make in the game--activating a distress beacon--connects you to a mysterious force known as Atlas. As you continue to travel the stars, you encounter peculiar space stations housing two scientists. These individuals help you acquire equipment upgrades and can point you toward black holes or illuminate the path to Atlas stations. Atlas stations are vast, temple-like spaces with an altar that allows you to convene with the spirit of Atlas. At first, it's difficult to define what Atlas is, but if you continue to heed its call, it will open your eyes to greater truths about itself, your journey, and the galaxy at large.
In a game with such a seemingly loose structure, Atlas is a godsend, providing direction and perspective that’s otherwise lost if you simply head to the center of the galaxy on the default path outlined on your star map. The realizations that Atlas stirs in your character's mind address big-picture questions pertaining to not only the game, but also to life itself. You’re forced to confront the point of your wandering, the value of material wealth, and the reason for existence. Atlas, in many ways, illustrates the value religion plays in some people's lives, but it also--quite cleverly--examines the role a game like No Man's Sky plays. It's no small coincidence that the scientist who aids you in your quest to find Atlas bemoans your direction, yet is hungry to consume what you discover.
If you only concern yourself with exploring, mining, and buying goods, you may burn out on No Man's Sky early. Atlas' observations regarding these pursuits are apt, but even if you recognize these activities as shallow, they could be better with added depth and improved mechanics. No amount of clever, thoughtful writing can excuse these issues. That said, the way Atlas frames these activities and how it makes you consider them in life as well as in-game--that's redeeming.
No Man's Sky is immediately a massive game with impressive seamless transitions from ground to space, and it will entertain your inner collector for a while. The more you get to know it, the more you recognize its faults, and it's easy to fall so deep into the act of exploring and trading that your focus narrows to those aspects alone. If, however, you consider everything it has to offer and listen to what Atlas has to say, No Man's Sky becomes more than a collection of slightly different worlds in a seemingly never-ending galaxy--it becomes an examination of the meaning of life in a way that's more valuable than all the gold or starships in its virtual galaxy.