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Persona 5 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/29/2017 - 17:00

Persona 5 is a game overflowing with style. From bold black and red menus that leap off the screen to the pop-and-lock of scene transitions that carry the player from one colorful corner of Tokyo to the next, it's a game about youthful exuberance and the power that lies within it. But its beauty isn't just skin deep. Persona 5's gameplay systems evolve and coalesce over its 80+ hours to deliver a confidently executed role-playing experience that is not only satisfying, but worth the almost decade-long wait since Persona 4.

Like its predecessors, it's part social simulator, part dungeon crawler. By day, you're a high school student--busy taking classes, visiting cafes, watching movies, and hanging out with friends. But by night you are the leader of the Phantom Thieves, a ragtag troupe of idealistic teenagers that infiltrate a parallel reality called the Metaverse. Here, the corrupted hearts of adults have manifested as Palaces, and the Phantom Thieves must find and steal Treasures within them to reform their marks, and by extension, society. Think Lupin the Third, but with a socially conscious supernatural twist.

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Together with your friends, you infiltrate the Metaverse. Here lie physical representations of people's personalities, called Personas--angels, demons, and monsters of all shapes and sizes that you battle using elemental attacks. Physical moves can be used to chip away at health points incrementally, but exploiting an elemental weakness elevates battles from turn-based slapsies to a flurry of crushing combos. Hit an enemy weak to fire with Agi and it will crumple, giving you an additional turn to exploit another enemy's vulnerability, either by switching Persona to adopt a different elemental alignment or by passing the baton onto a teammate who can pick up where you left off. Once they've all keeled over, you can launch an All-Out Attack and watch as black silhouettes of your team dance across a striking red background, slicing and dicing enemies until they burst into a shower of blood. This triumphant animation calls to mind The Bride's iconic blue room battle against the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, and even though you'll see it hundreds of times it never stops being cool.

Improvements to the battle system mean that if you've already identified an enemy's weakness, instead of trawling through menus to locate the specific ability, tapping R1 takes you straight to the move you need. When combined with the baton passing, streamline the turn-based fights into pacy experiences that maintain forward momentum with ease. There's nothing more satisfying than firing off Persona spells, tagging in teammates, and wiping out waves of Shadows without them even getting a look in. Persona 5's combat pulls together some of the best elements from previous games--and it's borderline addictive as a result.

Persona 5's combat pulls together some of the best elements from previous games--and it's borderline addictive as a result.

Negotiations from early Shin Megami Tensei and Persona titles also make a return, but the system is much improved. If you knock down a Shadow, you'll surround it with guns drawn and can commence an All-Out Attack or simply talk to them. The conversation becomes a weird Q&A about your character or society a whole, and it often throws up some hilarious dialogue. There's nothing quite like winning over a succubus by playing hard to get or gaining the favour of a giant demon sitting on a toilet by telling him you, too, are a pretty easy going kinda guy.

Whether you're successful or not, negotiating will get you something. You can demand items, money, or a monster's allegiance, but whether your request is granted depends on your gift of the gab. I found negotiation to be a much more useful reward system than the random pickings offered by Shuffle Time in Persona 3 and 4. When filling my Persona compendium or trying to fuse a specific Persona I'd ask them to join my cause. While grinding I'd use an All-Out Attack to earn more XP. In a pinch I'd demand an item. The new system let me reap the benefits I needed at that point in my playthrough.

Palaces are areas given form by the distorted desires of powerful, corrupted individuals, while the process of infiltrating is akin to pulling off a heist. You need to identify your target by conducting investigations in the real world, then enter the Palace to explore it and secure an infiltration route. Once you've located the corrupted heart of the individual--represented as an ethereal Treasure--you send a calling card to the target in the real world. This act of showmanship not only alerts the world to the target's misdeeds but also gives physical form to the Treasure in the Palace so it can be stolen.

And those Palaces are the best dungeons the series has ever had. No longer are you climbing through levels of procedurally generated corridors to reach a boss at the top. Instead, each Palace contains a myriad of puzzles to crack, traps to avoid, and of course, Shadows to defeat. They are intricate, striking locations that unravel as you explore them, each varying in size, scope, and gameplay opportunities. One is a rat maze filled with locked doors and looping hallways, another is a giant safe that you need to crack, and one is a crumbling pyramid filled with walking mummies. They feel almost like different worlds from a Mario game, each uniquely themed and cycling through gameplay ideas like cards in a rolodex.

As Phantom Thieves, you sneak through halls, darting between cover and jumping over obstacles. As you slink into the shadows and ambush an unsuspecting enemy, getting in that crucial first shot, you realize that these Palaces are designed for you to be sneaky. And it feels really satisfying to bounce between coverpoints and ambush an enemy … when it works. Although you're encouraged to take enemies out sneakily, doing so is made difficult by the game's uncooperative camera, which often restricts your view. Similarly, clambering over obstacles doesn't quite feel as good as it should. There are specific spots that you can climb up to access more areas and I often missed these because I wasn't standing in the pixel perfect point to get the prompt needed to jump.

But honestly, this is nitpicking. I loved my time in each of the Palaces, wandering around using my Third Eye Ability to uncover secrets and steal treasures, feeling like Batman on Opposite Day. Its puzzles never became too taxing, even in later dungeons that required backtracking to find a specific item, enemy, or switch using the Third Eye. In these areas the game mercifully opens up shortcuts for you, so you don't feel like you're wasting too much time.

Persona 5 has a hefty run time and while the story remains engaging until its final moments, the gameplay has some pacing issues towards the end.

Balance in such a huge game is tricky. I played on Normal difficulty, and for the vast majority of the game enemies felt well-matched to my level. Persona 5 has a hefty run time and while the story remains engaging until its final moments, the gameplay has some pacing issues towards the end. Instakill attacks, a short supply of elemental power-refuelling SP items, and going long stretches of miniboss after miniboss without a save point mean the latter stages can sometimes feel more frustrating than enjoyable. I've been wiped out half an hour into a fight on multiple occasions, and I'm still a bit bitter.

But Palaces are just one part of the Metaverse. Once you take a Treasure, Palaces collapse, so they're not really the place to grind for levels. For those that enjoy the grind-heavy areas of P3's Tartarus and P4's randomly generated dungeons there's Mementos--society's joint Palace, which takes the form of the depths of Tokyo's subway system. This area is long, with many procedurally generated levels spiralling down towards a mysterious, seemingly unreachable core. It would feel like a monotonous job were it not for the Phansite. One of your Confidants believes so much in the plight of the Phantom Thieves that he sets up a website where members of the public can leave messages of support (or memes).

More importantly, Phansite users can suggest people they think deserve a change of heart. These are figures that aren't quite evil enough to have their own Palace, but who are still misbehaving enough to spawn a demi-boss within Mementos. These side stories of abusive boyfriends, scammers, and thieves are mere tasters--bite size chunks of justice that you can dole out at your leisure while grinding for experience. Infiltrating Palaces can sometimes take hours, so quickly dealing with a few Phansite Requests in one go is a satisfying microcosm of the larger gameplay loop in Persona 5. Plus it made me feel like Judge Dredd, dishing out justice as I saw fit to clean up the city.

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Persona 5 creates a rewarding synergy between its social simulator and dungeon crawling by making everyday activities in the former empower you in the latter. With limited time in each day and a constant deadline to steal Treasures by, it's up to the player to prioritize after-school and weekend activities. Attributes such as Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, and Guts can be improved by studying, working in part-time jobs, crafting tools, or watching DVDs. In turn, these enable you to build deeper bonds with other characters to strengthen yourself and your cause.

Persona games live and die on characterisation as much as they do on the RPG mechanics that underpin the gameplay, and in that respect the latest entry delivers a cast that is loveable, quirky, and nuanced in equal measure. Although the main group neatly fits into classic anime archetypes initially, over time everyone reveals the baggage they carry and, as you solidify your bonds, they start to show their complexities, creating emotional moments where you work through their pain together.

Sometimes their goals will align with yours and sometimes they won't, so the group can be a little rowdier than previous Persona teams--but that only adds to the experience. I loved that you really had to invest time and effort into each character to crack their personality and unlock how they truly felt. Morgana the amnesic talking cat (it is a Japanese game, after all) is shrouded in mystery, determined to learn about his forgotten past. The quirky Futaba, despite suffering from extreme social anxiety, is the strategic genius behind the group's Metaverse adventures. Ryuji's boisterousness is both the energy the team needs to push forward and the powder keg that could be its undoing. And Ann deals with issues of self-doubt in the competitive field of modelling. These characters grow and change as you spend more time with them: They go from being mechanical tools that you engage with to strengthen their Personas, to real people you can identify and sympathize with. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I was leaving behind friends I had known for years.

Building these relationships with teammates is key to success in the Metaverse. Increasing Confidant Ranks (a rebrand of the Social Link system from Persona 4) by spending time with each of your friends not only affords you deeper insight into their personalities, but also provides bonuses and special moves in battle. A teammate who initially was closed off and distant in the real world can end up literally taking a bullet for you in the Metaverse. Similarly, by improving your personal traits through daily activities you can meet a variety of side-characters that teach you new abilities or offer bonuses that feed back into the battle system.

More than any entry in the series before it, Persona 5 manages to make the mundane not only fit into its gameplay loop but be essential to it. Atlus has perfected the back and forth investment and reward dynamic between the game's two parts to point where even doing laundry is gratifying--and how many games can you say that about?

While there are moments of levity in Persona 5, the actions of the Phantom Thieves are important and often have much bigger implications than even they intended. Persona 5 deals with complex subject matter and really doesn't shy away from dark, even uncomfortable, story beats. A constant theme of the game is oppression and injustice, specifically how people can be suffering them in silence. It uses personal hardships and the pressures of modern day society to explore how the actions of the older generation affect the future of the youth. But there's also an optimism to it all. Its cast approaches complex issues and takes on overwhelming odds with a clarity and gusto that can only be born from teenage naivety, and there's a refreshing, cathartic quality to being part of that. But of course, just like in the real world, things aren't always black and white, and the game does an excellent job of showing how even well-meaning actions can have adverse consequences.

Narratively and thematically, Persona 5 has the potential to overwhelm--particularly once it starts digging into Jungian theories of psychology. Thankfully, however, the writing does a fantastic job of eliminating unnecessary exposition, which ensures the important storylines are clear and everyone--especially series newcomers--is on the same page. It means the first ten hours are a little slow, and may make a lot of surface level observations, but not to the detriment of the story or its characters. Even with the heavy subject matter, it doesn't become overbearing and in fact is filled with little jokes and easter eggs to lighten the mood where appropriate. The localisation team has done a superb job of translating the comedy for a Western audience, too. I'm a big fan of the DVDs you can rent--spoofs of popular Western media like 'The X-Folders' or 'Bubbly Hills, 90210.'

Within Persona 5 is a complex set of interconnected gameplay mechanics, and in almost every aspect Atlus has executed on its vision exceptionally, barring the pacing issues towards the end. At every turn, it presents something to marvel at, whether it's the fluid combat, vibrant world, or the many memorable characters. It's a game I could talk about for hours; I haven't mentioned the ability to connect to the Thieves Guild, which lets you see how other players spent their day or ask them for help answering questions at school. Or the thumping acid-jazz-infused soundtrack that I've not been able to get out of my head. Or even just the joy of seeing how it stylishly transitions between menus. But that encapsulates why Persona 5 is a game that shouldn't be missed. It's stuffed to bursting point with gameplay ideas and presentation flourishes--there's an overwhelming level of artistry in every part of Persona 5, making it a truly standout entry in the series. It's a refined, effortlessly stylish RPG that will be talked about for years to come.

Categories: Games

Everything Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/22/2017 - 01:30

Imagine taking a philosophy class where a brilliant, engaging, charismatic professor opens your mind and helps you see the world like you never have before who also pauses every few minutes to play a Frank Zappa album. That should give you a rough idea of what it's like to play Everything. It's a game that manages to convey profound beauty and a sense of one's place in the universe that's periodically undercut by a compulsive need to interject a sense of twee and abstract randomness. It's hard to tell how seriously you're supposed to take it all.

Everything is an interactive art project that allows you to transform into nearly any object you find, from planets all the way down to microbes. There are no traditional goals, and except for one particular area, Everything has no hard-and-fast boundaries. It's just you and the universe, with nothing standing in your way.

The dissonance starts from the very beginning. At the outset, you're a bear in a vast woodland full of creatures living out their lives. They move around by tumbling end over end, stiff as boards, like they're auditioning to be new Tetris blocks. After spending some time learning the basic controls, you can roam around freely, “sing” to other creatures and things, learn how to hear their thoughts, and figure out how to talk to them to gain their trust and move in groups. It's the game at its most playful: rocks, animals, and houses will grouse about a friend who's a jerk or cheerily go on about what a nice day it is all while doing perpetual faceplants to get around.

Eventually, one of the plants, animals, or objects you encounter tells you that you can explore things on a smaller scale--and thus, you learn the Descend ability, which allows you to embody a different creature on a lower plane of existence. That’s neat by itself, but the real magic occurs when you realize that you don't have to stop there. Embodying something like an insect is step one. Step two is inhabiting miniscule things like pollen or hair. You can then continue downward to atomic structures, and finally subatomic particles. The trick goes the other direction as well. A bear can Ascend and become a sequoia tree, which can become an entire continent. A continent can Ascend to become a planet, which can become a sun, which can become a galaxy.

The ease with which you can become one of a diverse set of objects across multiple planes of existence feels like a technical marvel. Everything's long-term memory is impressive as well. You can spend a solid hour exploring atoms in a blade of grass. When you eventually ascend, the game will remember the group of ants you corralled into service nearby, no matter how far you go.

If your greatest gaming dream is to assemble a street gang made up of two teapots, an eyeball, a saxophone, and a banana that misses its sister, Everything is the game for you.

Everything is at its most powerful when it provides humbling, awe-inspiring moments of scale, held even further aloft by sound bytes of the late British philosopher Alan Watts that arise along the way. Watts' ongoing narration may be the game's strongest core component, as it provides a sense of neo-spiritualist context to everything you see and experience. Exploring the very building blocks of reality is powerful on its own, but Everything achieves something deeper with the gentle, playful reminder that this, too, is us.

How, then, do you marry that with the ability to hop down the street as an refinery's smokestack, or talking with a monkey about how dumb his friends are? The answer: You don't. There’s an element of wacky, dadaist humor to Everything that, at its most absurd, brings back memories of Katamari Damacy's endless amusement; being able to roll the most random things up in a ball and watching them squirm around, making noises until the ball is big enough to swallow planets whole. You can't roll things up here, but if your greatest gaming dream is to assemble a street gang made up of two teapots, an eyeball, a saxophone, and a banana that misses its sister, Everything is the game for you.

Therein lies the fundamental issue: there is no unifying theory of Everything. If the point is to invoke a sense of existentialist zen, it accomplishes that, but it subsequently undercuts the accomplishment with a sense of lame, abstract humor. If the point is to invent a wild playground where everything that exists has a self-centered consciousness all its own, it’s that as well--in which case, it's almost taking Alan Watts' ideas to Looney Tunes levels of ridiculousness. When those two elements are at odds, the game seems to lose all meaning.

That's a grave disservice, too. More than a few games are able to deliver this brand of random crazy on a far more enjoyable, technically polished scale than this--the very “ending” of the game feeling like an inadvertent homage to the intro of every LittleBigPlanet game just solidifies that fact. But the number of games able to so effectively recontextualize how you think about your place in the universe in an interactive medium is paltry. That crazy game of playing as random stuff is disposable. That game of realizing we are all one is vital. A combination of the two thrown together, Everything becomes staggering in its ambition--and yet deeply disappointing.

Categories: Games

Malicious Fallen Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 18:00

Malicious Fallen may not be developed by Platinum Games, but it sure does look the part. This may have something to do with the fact that developer Alvion supported Platinum Games during the development of such titles as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Bayonetta 2, and Anarchy Reigns to name a few. Malicious Fallen delivers some beautiful, colorful, anime-inspired visuals, and presents a familiar approach to massive-scale fights and flashy combo attacks. But that’s not enough to shake the feeling we've seen it done bigger, better, and more cohesively elsewhere.

Malicious Fallen tells the tale of a land ruled by an insane king whose wife makes a deal with supernatural powers in order to end her husband's reign of terror. After he's gone, however, she finds herself more than a little hesitant to give up on her power trip. She becomes the new despot, subsequently granting her best warriors a share of the glory in rampaging across the countryside. A group of prophets, loyal to the powers beyond, have you in their back pocket. You play the part of the Spirit Vessel, who's been imbued with all the remaining magical power left in the universe, along with a cape called the Mantle of Cinders, to go forth and triumph over evil.

Since all of this is presented in text form, however, it ends up as an easily missable cover story for what essentially boils down to a dazzling boss rush that throws you to the wolves within minutes of starting the game. You're given a short, perfunctory tutorial, a series of portals to choose from, and off you go. The brevity of training could be forgiven if the game were more of an arcade-style brawler where you only really need to know how to hit, dodge, and maybe perform a flashy special, but Malicious Fallen--to its credit and curse--offers a combat system full of tiny intricacies that only really come together via rigorous, Sisyphean trial-and-error.

You begin your quest with a few attacks: the Mantle of Cinders can turn into a shield for defense, a set of giant fists for close-quarters combat, or it can fire a ranged attack that can target whatever's directly in front, and potentially barrage multiple enemies. To add an extra level of complexity, you can also alter attacks so that enemies who die explode, chaining damage to other nearby enemies. All of this is adds points into a resource called Aura.

Aura is everything in Malicious Fallen. Not only is it the resource that you use to heal, but when your Aura stash is full, you're allowed to unleash extremely high-powered attacks that can make relatively quick work of the game's massive bosses. All of this is technically explained in the tutorial, but these instructions mean little without context; you're ultimately left to figure out how to handle Aura on the fly, and likely die several times in the process.

The other gameplay element is a Mega Man-style system where every boss drops a new ability for you to use, and figuring out which ability will have maximum effect against each boss--or even whether what you have available will even make a dent--is, again, a trial-and-error process. It requires that you get very comfortable with each bosses' patterns and attacks, but it also means a lot of wrestling with the game's twitchy camera. It's the basis for a woefully unintuitive targeting system that only focuses on the boss, and sometimes has trouble even activating. It's not unusual to end up on your back, suffering from a barrage of cheap hits for prolonged periods of time, all because you weren't able to target properly. The kicker? Your life force is measured by having limbs and parts of your outfit knocked off--which, on a busy battlefield, can be near impossible to monitor. Typically, it's not until a single hit results in an unexpected game over that you realize how far gone you were.

Through the chaos, however, there are joys to be found. The game's ornate cathedrals and rollicking battlefields are, at times, breathtaking spectacles. The bosses themselves are fantastically designed, and just watching them move and react is impressive. While combat is poorly explained, going back to older bosses with a new arsenal and a better understanding of the game makes for a gratifying form of payback.

The fact remains that you have to perform a lot of legwork to understand how each boss works in respect to your abilities. There's a fine line to be crossed in a boss rush game, where hard fought battles lead to either sighs of relief or aggravated groans. Too often, Malicious Fallen earns the latter. Malicious Fallen isn’t a game that feels triumphant so much as tiring.

Categories: Games

Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 08:00

After the first few hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was discouraged--maybe even a little distraught. Within that short span of time, I'd already encountered unconvincing animations, bog standard missions, clunky user interface, stilted dialogue--basically every red flag you hope to avoid when approaching a lengthy shooter-RPG powered equally by action and story.

Thankfully, Andromeda did improve. As I progressed, I unlocked exhilarating new combat options, met characters with deeper appeal than my initial crew, and discovered freely explorable worlds that finally fulfilled the series' decade-old planet-hopping promise. And yet, some of those early problems persisted throughout, and while I did catch glimmers of the original trilogy's greatness, that shine was often dulled by lifeless dialogue, tedious missions, and even technical shortcomings.

To its credit, Andromeda boldly abandons the familiar. In place of the iconic Commander Shepard, we have Ryder, the daughter (or son) of a man chosen to lead one of four arks filled with intergalactic explorers looking to found colonies in a distant star cluster. Several disasters later, Ryder inherits her dad's job, and while the moments leading to and including that scene are pretty hackneyed, the stakes really sink in once you reach the Nexus--Andromeda's version of the earlier games' Citadel.

Here you discover the other three other arks have gone missing and that the Nexus, which arrived ahead of the arks, has suffered every setback imaginable, from growing food shortages to a veritable civil war. With leadership in shambles and no resources to revive the cryogenically frozen colonists, the sudden arrival of an ark immediately lands Ryder in an uncomfortable position of power. In practice, the scenario felt more believable than typical "you are the chosen one" cliches. I understood why those characters would look to me and felt the weight of their desperation. So when the Nexus gradually sprang to life as I started fixing problems, I felt genuinely accomplished.

The central storyline revolves around an evil alien race and its narcissistic leader.

In parallel with this more broadly-focused narrative--which encompasses much of the side content--the central storyline revolves around an evil alien race and its delusional, narcissistic leader, who poses a more immediate threat than food shortages. He's less one-dimensional than he initially seems, but the plot is largely predictable in a mindless blockbuster sort of way. The two stories intersect occasionally, and both pay off in the end.

Truthfully, Andromeda's story problems stem more from delivery than from plot. The vast majority of Andromeda's characters are just dull, and conversations rarely delve deeper than arduous "get to know you" small talk. No one yells or cries or expresses any measurable emotion at any point, even when they explicitly talk about their feelings, and there's no Tyrion Lannister or Francis Underwood to keep things interesting. There was plenty of room for Game of Thrones-style power struggles on the Nexus, yet all political disagreements are merely mentioned without being explored. Even romance options feel stilted, and the culminating scene I unlocked for successfully wooing a crew member was not as explicit or exciting as you might expect.

Worse still, your agency in these conversations is limited. Sure, you can periodically select from up to four dialogue options, but these frequently boil down to "be optimistic" or "be realistic." On paper, this system improves over the rigid renegade/paragon dichotomy of the original series, but in practice, the various options felt only superficially different. And regardless of what I picked, my inputs only rarely impacted the outcome. Even when I tried to be rude, characters generally found a way to shrug it off. And after beating the campaign, I can only recall one major decision that had serious repercussions, and even that felt contrived. It also paled in comparison to the memorably gut-wrenching choices forced on me in the original games.

In fairness, Andromeda did sometimes surprise me with poignant moments, like my crew comforting me in a dark hour and a conversation with my partner AI about the meaning of life. The game just buries these gems under hours of empty or even cringe-worthy interactions filled with heavy-handed themes, awkward lines of dialogue, and weird idiomatic phrases that felt out of place in a far flung galaxy. What person says "What's the word on the street?" without irony in 2017 let alone 600-plus years in the future?

Andromeda's worlds are breathtaking to behold and exciting to explore.

Thankfully, I didn't have to dig as deep to find the things Andromeda does well. Its worlds, for example, are breathtaking to behold and exciting to explore. You eventually uncover four mini-open worlds, as well as smaller, standalone areas like an overgrown jungle outpost and your own ship, The Tempest. The four major maps are sizable and offer drastically different environments and hazards, from frozen wastelands to arid deserts to unruly jungles. They're also filled with NPCs to chat up and side missions to undertake. You could end up solving murders in a pirate port, betting at a Krogan fighting pit, or unlocking secrets in ancient yet hyper-advanced vaults. Or you could just wheel around in your Nomad. The galaxy is vast and varied, and that's worth being excited about.

I also fell in love with the combat, especially later in the game. The core shooting mechanics feel stronger here than anywhere else in the series, and the flexibility of the progression system let me cherry pick cool powers rather than locking me into a set character class. I ended up building, well...a space ninja, basically. I could use tech to cloak myself, biotics to charge enemies, a shield-buffing sword to deal damage, and the standard jumpjets to dart away again. The results were consistently frantic and fun, though there are plenty of other options as well. I enjoyed nearly everything I experimented with, even if most enemies proved to be predictable adversaries.

Combat's one major flaw is the crafting system. I would call it more of a missed opportunity than a problem, but crafting is often the only way to get the weapons and armor you actually want, which means hours of scanning objects to accrue research points and many headaches dealing with the messy UI. Even bare essentials like comparing weapon stats can be tricky or even impossible. The crafting and loadout stations are also at opposite ends of the Tempest, which routinely forced me to run back and forth to get things done. You will occasionally find loot around the world, but it's severely utilized as a reward mechanic. I felt deeply satisfied when I finally completed my perfect loadout, but I'm not sure it was worth the energy.

Crafting isn't Andromeda's biggest time-waster, however. That would be its tedious missions. Far too many open world quests--even some that feel important or come packaged in an interesting premise--devolve into multistep "go here, hit a button" errands. There's always another navpoint somewhere across the map or an NPC who needs exactly three items or a crucial datapad that's unexpectedly missing when you arrive. I frequently felt like an intergalactic errand boy, mindlessly scanning everything in sight so my omniscience AI partner could do whatever the situation required and give me a new waypoint to reach.

I frequently felt like an intergalactic errand boy, mindlessly scanning everything in sight.

These missions aren't all bad, per se, but they desperately needed some editing--or at least a wider variety of gameplay scenarios. Forcing players to repeat the exact same action three times or drive across the map to interact with one prompt isn't fun--it's padding. The campaign and crew loyalty missions provide better crafted experiences, but there's no avoiding at least some of the unimaginative tedium, especially since you rarely receive enough information upfront to really know what you're getting into.

There is plenty to do outside of missions, however. Andromeda includes a somewhat convoluted meta-game that challenges you to raise planets' viability levels by establishing outposts and completing other quests. You can also hunt for "memory triggers" left by your father that eventually reveal a few interesting secrets. And then there's mining, which uses a hot/cold indicator to let you hunt for crafting resources while driving across the worlds; space travel, which lets you jump from to location to location, scanning planets for XP; and strike teams, which give you the option to send unseen groups of soldiers out on missions or earn additional rewards by jumping into a cooperative multiplayer horde mode match. Individually, these elements don't add much, but collectively, they do round out the sci-fi fantasy.

Unfortunately, there's a dark cloud hanging over all of this: technical issues. Sure, the facial animations really don't look great, but the problems run deeper. On PS4, the framerate was all over the place both in and out of action. On both PS4 and PC, I encountered several audio issues, most notably multiple lines of dialogue playing at the same time, covering each other. I also saw other random glitches like characters that failed to load during conversations, exiting a conversation to find myself a room away from where I was previously, and enemies that fell into the level geometry. None of these issues rendered the game unplayable, but they were noticeable and pervasive.

In many ways, Andromeda feels like a vision half-fulfilled. It contains a dizzying amount of content, but the quality fluctuates wildly. Its worlds and combat shine, but its writing and missions falter--and the relative strength of the former is not enough to compensate for the inescapable weakness of the latter. As a Mass Effect game, Andromeda falls well short of the nuanced politics, morality, and storytelling of its predecessors. For me, the series has always been about compelling characters and harrowing choices, so to find such weak writing here is bitterly disappointing. Yet even after 65 hours, I still plan on completing a few more quests. The game can't escape its shortcomings, but patient explorers can still find a few stars shining in the darkness.

Categories: Games

Shovel Knight: Specter Of Torment Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 03/17/2017 - 01:30

Shovel Knight is defined by its likeness to games from the era of 8-bit consoles. It takes inspiration from games like Mega Man and Ducktales not only in its pixel- and pitch-perfect audiovisual aesthetic, but also in its mechanics--Shovel Knight is a resolutely unforgiving 2D platformer. Peril is almost always present on screen--be it a bottomless pit or a tough enemy that can quickly whittle down your health--making this a game that demands your undivided attention as much as it does your quick reflexes. Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to Shovel Knight, a prequel that's available as a standalone campaign on Nintendo Switch or a free update to those who already own the main game, and it follows the titular Specter Knight as he sets out to gather an army for the series' primary antagonist, The Enchantress.

Specter Knight's default skillset is dramatically more varied than that of Shovel Knight, with a focus on the lightness and dexterity of his character, as opposed to Shovel Knight's heavier, brute-force feel. Specter Knight has an innate ability to wall jump, mount ledges, and vertically scale walls for a short time. Most significantly, Specter has the ability to perform a mid-air scythe dash on enemies and certain environmental objects, an attack which sends him flying at an angle and is used for traversal as much as it is for offence.

The execution of these moves is simple, requiring nothing more than a timely press of the attack or jump buttons, and together they make Specter feel like a powerfully agile character who is a joy to control. But with these abilities come more difficult challenges in Specter of Torment's new platforming levels. Unlike Shovel Knight, whose stages gradually grew in difficulty and were gated in an overworld map style reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, Specter of Torment presents you with the full selection of what I personally found to be equally-challenging stages and their accompanying boss fights, available to be tackled in any order in a structure more reminiscent of the Mega Man series.

Bottomless pits and other instant-death hazards feel more abundant in Specter of Torment, and proceeding forward almost always involves more than just careful jumping. Stages often require you to chain a series of movements together in order to keep Specter Knight airborne for extended periods of time over treacherous ground, and one fumbled execution could mean a complete do-over. You might climb the side of a wall to get you just enough height to wall-jump towards a series of swinging chandeliers, letting you scythe-dash into each one and eventually fling yourself across the room to mantle an opposing wall. Managing to reach a checkpoint after perfectly overcoming a series of obstacles without fumbles or fatalities is always a thrilling relief. The dexterous demands of performing these moves means that progress always feels satisfying and well-earned, even when it feels second-nature.

Each themed stage adds its own unique mechanical twists to the game's platforming which need to be internalised too. There are some incredibly memorable ones such as scythe surfing, which sees Specter Knight ride his scythe like a skateboard and grind rails to move through stages at speed--but otherwise the majority will be familiar to those who have played the main Shovel Knight game, albeit with minor twists to better accommodate Specter's abilities. This is unsurprising, given the game's prequel nature and the appearance of many of the same characters and worlds, but the new level designs still feel more demanding.

Specter of Torment also features many of the same formidable level bosses as the original Shovel Knight, and although many of the battles with them seem a bit too similar to their previous appearances, some are altered significantly to make the most of Specter's mobility, and can come as an enjoyable surprise to those familiar. The fight with Propeller Knight, for example, no longer takes place on a static platform, but in the midst of many tiny, cascading airships, requiring you to continually scramble upwards while dodging attacks.

The completion of each level allows you to purchase additional Curios, Specter of Torment's unique version of Shovel Knight's Relics, which allow for the use of special abilities at the cost of a consumable meter. Each Curio has its own distinct use to aid in the dispatching of enemies or to ease the burden of traversal. For example, the Hover Plume gives Specter Knight the ability to float in mid-air for a short duration, and Judgement Rush allows Specter to ignore pits and walls and teleport directly to an enemy. Each tool adds an interesting new facet to the way you can approach Specter of Torment's levels, but the entirety of the game can be completed without using them. I found that relying on Curios diminished the sense of satisfaction that came from overcoming difficult obstacles using only Specter Knight's base skillset, and tended to avoid them.

Much of what made the original Shovel Knight a success can also be found in Specter Knight. Level designs also cleverly act as intuitive tutorials, demonstrating the possibilities and limits of what you can and can't do in particular stages without explicit explanation. Shovel Knight's penchant for rewarding exploration is also still present. Secret paths and areas are strewn throughout the game's stages and hub world. Some are obvious, but some can come as a small surprise to those who are willing to push the limits of the traversal abilities. The game's checkpoint system--which allows you to actually destroy a checkpoint for monetary reward at the risk of having to re-traverse more of the level upon death--is still a clever mechanic. And Shovel Knight's sense of humor and charm still manage to shine through, despite Specter of Torment's more melancholic tone. Small moments like watching a reunited skeleton couple perform a waltz, playing with a cat, or simply enjoying the lighthearted dialog of NPCs provide nice moments of levity.

While it only took us a few hours in total to complete the game's story mode, Specter of Torment felt well-paced and never unnecessarily short. The density of challenge contained within its individual stages meant that I was always entirely concentrated on the next obstacle, but Specter of Torment attempts to pace its demands on your mental state every few levels with short, interactive narrative interludes that serve as an enjoyable prequel to this prequel campaign. Specter of Torment also offers a new game plus option upon completion with a slightly more demanding health mechanic, and also offers a challenge mode which presents a variety of platforming and boss fight trials under strict restraints.

Specter of Torment is a finely-crafted 2D platformer that is satisfying in all respects. Simply controlling Specter Knight--flying through the air and slicing through enemies--is a joy in itself, and being able to push your ability to control these skills in overcoming the game's cleverly-designed and challenging levels is always an exhilarating feeling. Specter of Torment is a focussed, polished, and satisfyingly challenging game that's well worth experiencing whether or not you've had the pleasure of playing Shovel Knight.

Categories: Games

Styx: Shards Of Darkness Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/15/2017 - 03:38

As you sit atop a wooden beam observing patrol patterns, you plot a series of moves: fire a bolt at the overseeing guard right when another walks into your acid trap, swoop in to snatch the loot and run off before anyone else notices. If it doesn’t go according to plan, you’ll cloak, hide in a closet, and slip out as the investigating party turns its backs to your exit. Styx: Shards of Darkness attempts to deliver such thrills, and at times it succeeds. However, these moments are sparse since you’re rarely put in a position where cunning is required. Ultimately, the game adheres to typical stealth conventions and pits you against foolish AI, with mission objectives that fail to make the most of the game's sprawling environments.

Shards of Darkness marks the return of the titular protagonist Styx, a foul-mouthed Goblin who originated in the 2012 RPG Of Orcs and Men. The 2014 prequel Styx: Master of Shadows was the spin off that made the shift to third-person stealth-action. Neither is required to engage in this new low-fantasy adventure, though some things remain constant. The substance known as Amber governs the world as an energy source. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs are caught up in a power struggle while Goblins, like Styx, are treated as vermin.

A new material, called Quartz, shakes up the established political landscape and you embark on a journey to unravel its implications. However, twists and turns throughout the story lack any sort of gravitas. The supporting cast of characters like Helledryn and Djarak are integral to the events that unfold, but their motivations aren’t quite clear or put into a larger context. The same can be said about Styx, who seems to be suspect of those around him but is willing to go along with whatever plan his newfound partners put together without much thought. His convictions are flimsy and hardly go in any direction.

Styx himself is written to be comically vulgar, but attempts at humor fall flat. The heavy-handed self-referential and fourth wall-breaking quips throughout the game aren’t clever and often don’t fit the tone of the world. Important story events that occur mid-mission--that should induce panic in those within the vicinity--don’t translate to much of any consequence in-game. The premise is primitive, and the story only serves as a vehicle for the thrill of avoiding detection or executing assassinations.

The majority of your main quest is subject to making it to a certain point in the level or snatching a specific item. Hardly are there ever twists or curve balls in the mission parameters to keep things interesting, aside from a mid-game break in the traditional mission design. While side objectives emerge as you traverse levels, they often result in simply going to another room you wouldn’t otherwise or killing a certain NPC. A few puzzles are sprinkled here and there to break up the pace, but feel more like a diversion than a compliment. The sense of trepidation from other stealth games or situations that require you to think on your feet are few and far between.

Shards of Darkness would be nothing without its fluid controls. Running, crouching, and jumping are responsive and complement the opportunities to interact with your environment. A cover mechanic makes Styx adhere to the nearest wall and often recognizes your intended cover. That same button also lets Styx grab onto the ledge if you walk off the edge of a surface, which helps avoid dangerous falls and makes engaging in wall scaling a breeze. Leaping for ledges to reach new heights or shimmy across to bypass a locked door provides a smooth flow for combing through the levels. Scaling cliffs at the port in Korrangar highlights a sense of verticality and the ability to engage these heights.

A five-pronged skill tree is in place to help build the type of character you want Styx to be; learn to craft new items through the alchemy tree or earn the talent to assassinate enemies from above in the kill tree. Amber--akin to mana--fuels Styx’s powers. Spawn a clone to act as a controllable dummy and lure enemies or cloak to simply pass by unnoticed. Amber vision highlights key objects within the surrounding area, and doesn’t cost anything to activate, though it will fade out as you move. These abilities form a neat toy box to pull from throughout the game.

Styx also has a few tools at his disposal, such as acid traps and deadly bolts for a lethal approach, and balls of sand to extinguish fires and glass bottles for distractions. One of the more useful items is the odorous vial, which masks your musty goblin scent from the sharp noses of dwarves who will detect you if you’re in their proximity. These items can be picked up along the way, but you’ll more commonly acquire them by crafting from raw materials. The crafting system is simple and functional, and gives a slight incentive to examine your surroundings.

So many tools and abilities are at your disposal and should make for enticing permutations in your encounters, but the scope in which you’re asked to exercise these capabilities is underwhelming.

Enemy AI is a throwback to the early days of stealth games, and that’s not a compliment. They’ll go through the traditional behavior states, like searching, alert, and hostile phases. Guards searching for you will relegate their sighting to cliches like, “it was just a shadow,” or, “my mind was playing tricks,” as they return to a normal state. Enemies will occasionally keep you on your toes during alert phases as they’ll look in closets, under tables, and over ledges where you could hide. But if they lose track of you in a hostile phase or discover dead bodies--even of important figures--NPCs will eventually return to their patrol as if nothing had happened. Along with predictable patrol patterns, enemies are frequently in simplistic arrangements. They often act as separate entities and lack dynamic behavior. You’re often left unchallenged and can resort to unsophisticated solutions to complete mission objectives.

Combat isn’t a focus of the game, and it shows. The system in place is reduced to a clunky one-button parry that allows you to pounce the enemy after a successful block. If multiple guards are in close proximity, the game will struggle to recognize which one you’re parrying and often negates your ability to make a kill in combat. Certain skills can make this easier, but you’re better off avoiding it all together. Even if it’s intended to be used sparingly in tight situations, its implementation is off the mark.

Despite these shortcomings, smooth traversal mechanics and useful abilities are supplemented by the sprawling environments and dense levels throughout the game. The scale of Hunter’s Village astonishes as you step out of a deep, dark dungeon and overlook this seaside city. It’s riddled with houses full of loot, guards that detect you in different ways, and objectives that take you through every nook and cranny. Hopping from house to house unnoticed, keeping your distance from nosey dwarves, while investigating the location of quest items is Shards of Darkness at its best.

Even the shadowy underground fortresses have a grand scale and inspire awe. But the underlying disappointment is that you’re rarely given much of a reason to explore. That is unless you embark on the search for tokens, arbitrarily scattered throughout each mission. And despite the well-crafted environments, the game recycles these locations at the halfway point of Styx’s latest journey.

If you’re in for a challenge, higher difficulties will make detection parameters more strict and disable the combat system entirely. Guards are quicker to reach a heightened alert state and will kill you in one melee attack. Styx can’t take much damage on normal difficulty, but to escape pursuing guards will require much more effort. Carelessness will get you killed so expect more of a trial-and-error experience. You also have the option to disable objective markers, separate from difficulty, and to encourage more exploration.

Co-operative play is a new addition to the series, and it allows you to play the story missions with a friend or a random player through matchmaking. You have the option to enable co-op at any point in a mission as a host in “Create a Clone” and a player searching for a game will connect. “Become a Clone” puts you in a search for a random game to join. This can be a fun feature but it’s more of a hinderance than an advantage, not because of unpredictable player skill, but because there are now two players that can get caught. It’s also impossible to communicate if you're not using a third-party chat service. Co-op alongside a friend is much more viable and makes for brilliantly fun instances, but note that disabled saving forces you to finish missions in one fell swoop.

The better moments of Styx: Shards of Darkness are confined to a path that has already been tread in the stealth-action genre, but that doesn't mean they aren't valuable here. The thrill of pulling off a flawless assassination as you smoothly sneak off with valuable artifacts is what makes these types of games worth playing. But its detractors--cliche writing, unsophisticated AI, and arbitrary quests--culminate to an experience that feels like it's stuck in the past.

Categories: Games

Fast RMX Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 03/11/2017 - 18:30

Since both Nintendo and Sony seem intent on not continuing their line of revered hovercraft racers (F-Zero and WipeOut), it’s good to know other developers are happy to pick up the slack. Witness Fast RMX, a digital-only launch title for the Switch, that fills this niche nicely. Astute racings fans may recognize this as the semi-sequel to the excellent if boringly named Wii U racer, Fast Racing Neo (itself the sequel to the Wii game, Fast Racing).

Admittedly, it’s likely not many will recognize this series at all, but given the dearth of launch titles for the Switch, maybe the game will finally get its due. Fast RMX resembles WipeOut, but plays more like F-Zero with its looser, more casual steering and physics. It’s a solid middleground between the two games, with some outrageously designed tracks and a frantic sense of speed.

For those who did play Fast Racing Neo, it should be noted this is essentially an upgraded version. It contains the previous game’s 24 tracks (including the DLC content) and adds six new tracks. This new version sports the same vehicles, three speed-based leagues, and game modes with the except of time trials, which are due to be added later. In Lieu of any world building or story, your only options are to hit the track for a quick race or work your way up the ranks in championship mode. Pick your speed machine of choice and head out to a variety of exotic and futuristic locales to take on the best of the best.

Fast RMX tracks represent a varied array of themes. You can race through sharp and shiny chrome-filled urban sprawls, ice-covered landscapes, jungles, deserts, outer space, and more. Environmental effects ranging from storms to asteroid strikes add flair as well, and make your task slightly more difficult than usual. Tracks typically feature roller coaster-like designs, with looping roads and massive jumps. At times, the tracks seem designed more for effect than skill, however, with off-kilter obstacles like hard to avoid giant turbines and jumps that are too disjointed and easy to crash against, especially when racing in the game's fastest leagues.

These races are brought to life with exceptionally good graphics--this is easily the best looking game on the Switch (at launch) next to Zelda. Vehicles are creatively designed and detailed, and the myriad of locations look terrific. The game also runs at 60 fps/1080p on your TV, even when playing split-screen multiplayer. The audio is more serviceable than exceptional, with an expected, if standard techno soundtrack.

The overall structure of the racing is a bit odd. The championship mode consists of three leagues (or speed classes), but all use the same 30 tracks. You only get one shot at placing in the top three on any given track within a championship, which makes the lack of a practice mode (or time trial) regrettable. Unlocking tracks in the championship mode also leads to the ‘Hero’ mode, where you have one life to race on a single track and must place first.

In Hero mode, your boost energy also powers your shield, so there’s an interesting dynamic between gaining more speed and preserving your ship. This all amounts to an intense alternative to the standard racing of the championship mode.

There are no weapons in Fast RMX, but absorbing energy from special pads on the track is vital. Energy comes in two flavors--blue and orange. You can phase shift your ship's energy field at any time between the two colors and the idea is to hit a pad with the corresponding field activated. So, hitting a blue energy pad while your ship is blue, gives you a massive turbo boost. Crossing a blue pad while your ship is orange will result in a loss of speed. Fast RMX gets a lot of mileage out of forcing you alternate phases in rapid succession, and makes the already fast races feel slightly more energetic.

Multiplayer support includes both eight player online and four-player split screen support, in addition to local online (where each Switch owner needs their own copy of the game). The split-screen play is excellent and highly customizable to get exactly the type of race you want. Online play works smoothly, but just throws you into a random game. Aside from players voting on the next track, there are virtually no options. There’s not even an ability to find friends or choose leagues yet.

So, Fast RMX isn’t as polished as the games it’s trying hard to emulate, but certainly isn’t a wash. It’s fast, looks excellent, and offers a great variety of tracks. The racing is fun, even if some of the track design is less than stellar. If the online multiplayer gets patched with more customization options, this will also make an excellent addition to the Switch’s scarce multiplayer options.

Categories: Games

Ghost Recon: Wildlands Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 03/11/2017 - 02:30

Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a squad based Tom Clancy game that plays by the numbers. It stays true to the series' Rainbow Six-inspired roots, emulating the cold and calculated nature of organized infiltration and coordinated stealth kills. Whether you're syncing shots with friends or an AI companion, there's gratification in taking down targets efficiently. Unfortunately, the adherence to this specific kind of gameplay gets lost and diluted in Wildlands’ vast expanse of Bolivia.

By Tom Clancy standards, Wildlands' story--a revenge tale disguised as a narco-state destabilization operation--is low hanging fruit. Worse yet, the narrative perpetuates the notion that a cartel is only worth taking seriously when one of your own has been tortured to death, ignoring the thousands of locals who've suffered similar fates.

It's easy to tell that Karen Bowman--your CIA field handler--has a personal vendetta against the Santa Blanca, the drug cartel that rules Bolivia. When you ultimately come face to face with El Sueno, the cartel's kingpin, you can spot the payoff a mile away. At the end, there's no poignant message or lesson regarding this latest Tom Clancy episode in American interventionism. El Sueno himself has the privilege of introducing his side of the story right when you launch Wildlands. His introductory monologue and his subsequent speeches justifying his twisted sense of morality sounds like the rationalizations of someone who grew up in a bedroom with posters of Michael Corleone and Walter White.

The pursuit of a single lead that Karen provides conveniently results in a series of other clues and each one of those tip-offs blossoms into others. Enough successful missions eventually results in confrontations with underbosses and lieutenants who are less than six degrees away from El Sueno. Wildlands is as much about gathering information on your targets as it is about picking what leads to follow down their respective rabbit holes. With a keen eye (and enough luck), you can avoid having to complete every missions related to a given boss and eliminate them ahead of schedule.

As you travel from lead to lead, you're exposed to the various factions that pepper Bolivia. On your side are the rebels, known as the Kataris 26. Enforcing El Sueno's rule are the Unidad, Bolivia's military police. These groups add character to your surroundings and how intrusive they are with your mission goals depends on you. You can curry favor with the rebels and gain their support by completing side missions and marking valuable resources for them. And as long as you're flooring it in a vehicle, any Unidad you drive by will sit tight, rather than follow in pursuit.

Some of your intel will reveal locations of weapons to add to your collection, though amassing a stockpile of firearms is purely optional. Compared to the multitude of games where the acquisition of guns is a major selling point, Wildlands’ selection is serviceable. The problem is that you can easily complete the game with your initial load out. This is because you regularly earn skill upgrades by completing missions, and you gain access to the quintessential stealth weapon--the silenced sniper rifle--early on. There's little incentive to hunt for other weapons unless you're a gun nut or you enjoy the experience of mixing up different weapons.

Along with the obvious discretionary benefits of the aforementioned silenced sniper rifle, the drone--even before you've upgraded its capabilities--is an exceedingly helpful tool. It's the catalyst to Wildlands' mark-and-execute mechanic, the same feature that's been the hallmark of last few Tom Clancy games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.

For the fans who've been hooked on Ghost Recon for the advancing technologies--which has been integral with the series' brand--the lack of gadgetry in Wildlands will prove disappointing. The novel appeal of drones--particularly in Tom Clancy games--has long since expired. While you can upgrade it with a handful of offensive and diversionary capabilities, its default function as a target-marking device is all you need.

While the drone marks your targets, it's your squad's responsibility to pull off the kills. The need for coordination underscores the team-based appeal of Wildlands, which can be experienced with AI-controlled teammates or, preferably, with other players. When playing with skilled friends, there’s comfort in knowing that you’ll most likely be on the same page. Playing with AI has it’s own benefits, like being better bullet sponges when they’re out in the open healing you. The one puzzling omission to multiplayer is the ability to form a mixed squad of friends and AI; if you're playing only with one buddy, you're stuck as a pair. Even so, it's wholly amusing that the whole squad's ongoing situational story-driven banter persists even when you're just a duo.

Wildlands' most gratifying moments come from playing the ghost. It means having the patience to spend minutes surveying a stronghold from a distance and arming yourself with that visual information to confidently infiltrate the base. There's a rush in leaving the base quietly with the intel you're assigned to uncover or--even more challenging--the VIP you're sent to rescue. And it doesn't get any better than pulling off these stealthy missions on your first try.

Equally thrilling are the moments where you have little time to adapt to changing circumstances. When the best laid plans go wrong, when you've been spotted and a base is on high alert, you're treated to one of the few instances where your squadmates' moment-to-moment updates are actually useful. When a high value target is fleeing, your team will let you know. Suddenly, a foot pursuit ensues and you're left ignoring all the chaos and gunfire around you. The resulting car chases prolongs the excitement, unless you're lucky enough to grab the target right before he finds a getaway vehicle.

At the outset, its appears that Wildlands' strength is in its diverse mission types. For every assassination, there’s a capture or rescue assignment. Any given sortie might involve hacking, sabotaging, or even stealing a plane. You might even find yourself pulling off the ol' switcheroo with two similar looking trucks. It’s never a dull moment, at least for the first 20 or so hours. By the time you've experienced each of these kinds of objectives a handful of times, boredom starts to set in.

This encroaching sense of monotony feels more apparent as the poorly written squad chatter starts to repeat itself. When your teammate complains about not being allowed to man the boat, it’s mildly amusing the first time, so you can imagine how annoying it would be hearing the same gripe the twentieth time. Even incorrect situational commentary, say when you’re alerted to a patrol chopper while you’re deep inside a mine stops being funny before long.

Ubisoft's reimaging of Bolivia is tailor made for goal-driven excursions beyond the story. Often times, it's photo realism is eye-catching, like when the sunlight glistens off a watery tire tracks. Other times, seeing nothing but jungle or an endless ridgeline of beige rocks brings out the blandness of some regions.

The mix of dense vegetation and barren mountains echo the environments of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, just less accommodating. Navigating your way down a rocky cliff on foot is as unpredictable as climbing one. Instead, you're left using vehicles as your most reliable means of traversal. Yet for a map that should be more off-road friendly, this interpretation of Bolivia often encourages you to keep to the beaten path, lest you wipeout after a sick cliff jump on a motorcycle.

One unsurprising benefit of the open environment are the myriad avenues for infiltration into any enemy stronghold. No matter how fortified a four-sided base is, there is always a backdoor, whether it's a broken fence and a convenient stack of boxes next to the outer wall. Finding and using these alternate entrances can be as satisfying as any frontal assault.

Despite the country's vastness, it's a mixed blessing that you don't need to visit every region to take down El Sueno. Whether you take the most direct route to the boss or you systematically cross off every underboss and lieutenant first, you'll confront a rogues gallery of diverse personalities, whether that's a social media savvy Santa Blanca evangelist or an American military ex-pat who found purpose in El Sueno's cause.

As only the second open world game in the Clancyverse, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a middlingly safe tactical shooter and a slightly wasted opportunity given the ambitious scope of its seemingly boundless map. While its main strength is its mission diversity, it doesn’t take long to lose the motivation after reaching El Sueno's doorstep. Even with a foursome of highly trained friends, Wildlands eventually reveals its diminishing returns. The feeling of positive immediacy and dopamine hits begin to wane sooner than you expected from a game with such a large and diverse world.

Categories: Games

Snipperclips Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 03/10/2017 - 19:23

As a Switch launch title, Snipperclips does little to sell the unique features of Nintendo's new console. Playing the game on the go isn't ideal, since the Switch's small screen and the bumpy nature of playing it in cars (or buses, trains, or planes) derails some of the accuracy needed to complete its puzzles. The game also doesn’t make use of the Joy-Cons' advanced haptic capabilities, meaning there's no real benefit to playing with the minuscule controllers--even though you're forced to do so.

So, no, Snipperclips isn't a game you'd buy to show off the capabilities of your sweet new Switch. But it is a game you should play because of its interesting mechanics, fun puzzles, and great cooperative play (and griefing possibilities). Snipperclips makes the most of its unique premise--often in surprising, challenging ways.

The game's base mechanic is simple enough: You--an anthropomorphic piece of paper--can cut up to three other players into various shapes in order to complete objectives and puzzles. At its simplest, it could be something as straightforward as snipping each other in order to fit into a specific silhouette or cutting a larger piece of paper into a certain shape.

Snipperclips doesn't stay simple very long, though--the game does an admirable job of presenting engaging, challenging tests built off its simple setup. Some puzzles task you with figuring out how to manipulate several gears and switches in order to move an object from one side of a level or another, while others require you to figure out a way to herd fish to a specific location. Some of the game's best levels are even more intricate--in particular, the ones that require you to control a princess avatar through a path you've had to cut out of a single sheet of paper.

The solutions to these levels are sometimes apparent, but most will require some creative thinking and a fair amount of trial-and-error. Thankfully, the process of uncovering these solutions is usually engaging, especially when playing with a friend or three. Snipperclips excels as a cooperative experience, and it's a particularly accessible one given its relatively sedate pace. There's no time pressure or twitch reflexes needed--finding the solutions to puzzles requires teamwork, lots of conversation, and perseverance.

Surprisingly, Snipperclips also plays pretty well as a solo experience, with a significant amount of the game's puzzles able to be completed alone. When playing solo, you still have to control two paper characters (switching between the two, as opposed to playing concurrently), and it's certainly a good challenge to figure out the sometimes-intricate step-by-step process you need to go through to complete objectives. You'll need a mountain of patience, though--having to do everything on your own while you're swapping between characters means an extra level of finesse is required, and because it takes so much longer to set up the solution to a puzzle when playing alone, having to start from scratch when you make a tiny mistake can become frustrating.

It's a lonely pursuit, though, because Snipperclips works best as a shared experience. When you're working with friends and you do finally complete a tough level together, the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie is palpable. Unfortunately, there's no real reason to replay levels--once you've figured out a solution, there's no incentive to try again, since there's no tangible benefit to finding out more efficient solutions. Snipperclips is indeed engaging, but it's likely something you'll only ever play through once. It isn't a Switch showstopper, but when a game is this inventive and appealing, it doesn't need to be.

Categories: Games

Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/08/2017 - 23:41

Dungeons & Dragons has a long, storied history in gaming. The classic pen and paper game has had several successful digital counterparts,and its approach to role playing has influenced and been repackaged as everything from Final Fantasy to Skyrim. If you’re only familiar with modern role-playing games, you could be forgiven for assuming that they’re all about crafting and loot, leveling and growing stronger. In truth, D&D’s many progeny have simply sidestepped what makes role-playing games one of the most powerful, affecting genres.

Torment: Tides of Numenera seeks to take role-playing back to its roots. Gone are the bombastic power fantasies. Gone, too, are cluttered inventory screens and complex crafting. Instead, Torment is about you taking on the role of another. Reductive as that might sound, the distinction underscores what modern RPGs have been missing for so long--actual role-playing.

Set more than a billion years in the future, Torment blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy. While everything is ostensibly technological, it’s often so advanced that it might as well be magical. It’s against that backdrop that your character pops into existence. You’re thrust into the body of the Last Castoff, a husk of a person created by a god seeking a perfect vessel. You begin your new life falling from space, with only a few broken memories ripped from the god who made you.

Character creation comes as a series of scenarios that encourage you to choose not just who you are (i.e. your gender or class), but what kind of person you want to be. Your backstory is set, but you can choose how to respond and explore the alien world into which you’ve just been born. From the outset, Torment encourages you to internalize motivations for your character.

When you play an RPG, you’re shaping the experience as much as the game’s developers did. They’ve authored the text and crafted the structure, but from those pieces, you construct your own adventure. It’s a blessing, then, that Torment’s pieces are phenomenal. Its environments are rich and detailed, packed with strange creatures and wondrous animated effects. Surreal, atonal music billows from these far-future locales, setting an uneasy tone. Torment’s true strength, though, is its writing and the beautiful twists it brings to classic RPG concepts.

This approach to crafting role-playing games pays dividends--it leaves room for thought and reflection. While RPGs often tout that you can do just about anything to just about anyone, Torment tries to break down what your actions mean.

Each area introduces at least a dozen characters--each with their own stories and relationships. Torment encourages you to indulge your curiosity and talk to everyone you see. That can cause the game to drag in places, as you might find yourself pushing through a thousand lines of text before you move on. Aside from the few parts where the sheer amount of text can be a little overwhelming, florid descriptions pour onto your screen describing everything from the subtle body language of alien creatures to finer details of your surroundings. Torment’s rich prose hits wonderful highs. It’s easy to slip wholly into the game’s world, losing yourself amidst the strange, unknown features of Earth a billion years from now.

Torment captures the essence of huddling around a table with your friends playing a campaign. It may not be as free-form as a true tabletop RPG, but Torment manages a believable illusion of endless possibilities. It drops the maps and simple, one-step quests of contemporary RPGs. Exploring these lands is an active process: You ask questions, you piece the mysteries together, and you find your own, novel solutions. With such developed characters and dense worlds, you’ll often think you’ve missed something, but this actually works in Torment’s favor, as more often than not, you’ll be left thirsting for more.

Even when you’re done with one small segment of the game, Torment begs you to wonder how things could have played out. That’s difficult for a scripted game, as it relies on blocking just enough from the audience that it inspires curiosity, while tilting the hand just often enough to show that what’s hidden is substantive. Torment walks that line perfectly, giving each scenario believably different outcomes with effects that can ripple throughout your playthrough. At the same time, these distinctions never feel arbitrary, you aren’t selecting between “the good option” and “the evil option.” Instead, your choices center around the tone and spirit of the character you want to play -- quests then are paths to your character’s development, not rote tasks with clean mechanical pay-offs like more money or better gear.

This approach to crafting role-playing games pays dividends--it leaves room for thought and reflection. While RPGs often tout that you can do just about anything to just about anyone, Torment tries to break down what your actions mean. At one point, you’ll have the opportunity to resolve a fracture in time. Working through it could be seen as an effort to heal and help, but you’re just as likely to cause a section of time to collapse, killing another character. Carelessness breeds instability--which, in turn, causes suffering. Similarly, kindness isn’t universally rewarded. Torment nudges you to think carefully about how you want to express yourself in this world.

Torment wants you to dig through its hamlets and delve into its dungeons on your own. It isn’t about cutting down waves of foes, it’s not about being the one true hero, and it’s not wish fulfillment. Narrative is an end in itself.

Here, pulling any one thread without understanding its connective tissue is the greatest sin. And this allows Torment to explore broader questions in ways that are human and relatable. You might be dealing with a woman who’s split between several dimensions or an all-consuming, amorphic maw that streaks across the landscape, but this is dressing for the more fundamental reflections on what it feels like to have your mind spread too thin and how people grapple with slow-moving disasters.

While the bulk of your time with Torment will, no doubt, be spent navigating dialogue trees, that’s not all there is here. You’ll also have three pools of points that you can pull from to perform extraordinary feats--might, speed, and intellect. The size of each can vary, so you could have nine points of speed to cash in and only three of might, but they’re all spent in similar ways. For example, if you come across a boulder that blocks your path, you might be able to shift it. You can attempt this without help, leaving the outcome largely to chance, or you can spend a few points of might to dramatically increases your odds--possibly even guaranteeing success.

This comes at a cost, though. Each of your point pools are difficult to replenish, so extraordinary exertion can leave you too weak or cognitively taxed to do much. You’re never powerless, though, and Torment goes out of its way to make every outcome interesting. Much like its almost infinitely sprawling tabletop inspirations, Torment flips the idea of failure on its head. Should you ever "fail", you might meet someone new or discover a secret you wouldn’t have caught if you had succeeded in the initial task. Everything you do and don't do in Torment is rewarded with more world-building prose and intrigue.

Torment wants you to dig through its hamlets and delve into its dungeons on your own. It isn’t about cutting down waves of foes, it’s not about being the one true hero, and it’s not wish fulfillment. Narrative is an end in itself. Story is the everything, and the play that backs that story, while minimal, gives the experience a weight that’s too often lost in other games. Torment defines itself as codified opposition to current trends, but that’s also not all it is. Using pools of points to set limits on its players and driving player expression through curiosity are novel additions to one of gaming’s oldest genres.

Taken together, Torment is far more than just a phenomenal role-playing game. It’s a challenge to restore the depth and nuance for which the genre was once known.

Categories: Games

Loot Rascals Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 03/07/2017 - 21:00

The opening cutscene of Loot Rascals, largely narrated by a teapot-headed British spaceman, establishes the game’s strange tone well. Instead of arriving at a holiday-resort planet to restore a medical unit's antenna as intended, you crash on an alien moon and find yourself battling against the game’s eponymous “rascals” that have stolen the medical unit. To get it back, you’ll need to trek through five randomly generated levels, battling or avoiding the moon’s many aggressors.

Loot Rascals is wacky in a way that feels genuine; the art style and creature design in particular feel like the work of artists who watched a lot of The Ren & Stimpy Show as kids and soaked up its playful grotesquery.

The action in Loot Rascals unfolds in a turn-based fashion. You move between hexagonal spaces, uncovering each area as you go, and either fight or circumvent enemies you encounter. Your goal is to find the warp spaces in each zone and make it to the fifth level to escape. Your attack and defense ratings are determined by the cards you’ve collected from defeated enemies. Meanwhile, enemies toggle between attack and defense modes on a day-night cycle that sees the sun or moon rise every five turns. Battles are automatically triggered when you and an enemy are on the same space. You want to attack foes while they’re defending because you’ll score the first hit--and, if your attack rating is high enough, you’ll be able to take them out before they get their chance to counterattack.

It’s a solid core system, especially if you manage to get your hands on some strong cards early on. Several have different mutations that can strengthen your stats or grant new abilities. You can equip eight cards at once and hold six others, and where you place them in your “hand” matters--a card may power up all others to its right, for example, or lose all power if placed in the top row. Balancing your cards and figuring out the best combinations based on what you have is one of the game’s more rewarding elements.

Loot Rascals’ core problem is repetition. This is, admittedly, a core part of the roguelike experience, where if you're ever defeated in battle, you lose all of you progress and must start a new playthrough. But the best games in the genre find ways to keep the early stages interesting during repeated plays. While the levels themselves are randomly generated, each stage’s main enemies and features are largely the same each time. While being fastidious, checking your map as it reveals itself, and picking your battles are all important, there’s a strong element of luck to Loot Rascals that becomes grating after a while. A handful of truly powerful, useful cards can greatly increase your chances of progress, so if you don’t encounter any of them early on, the uphill battle you’re fighting can start to feel insurmountable.

Over hours of play, your success starts to feel arbitrary, and fighting your way through the first area over and over again feels rote and dull.

If you’re not loaded up with cards augmented with abilities--which allow you to hit enemies from a distance with attacks and distractions--progress can stagnate. Enemies have different movement patterns and abilities, but none of them truly shake up the gameplay. It’s rare that you’ll be in a position to use your environment to your advantage or employ tactics beyond attacking or running away. The lack of a story outside of the opening and closing cutscenes means that runs never feel like narrative adventures the way they do in some stronger roguelikes. You never die with a sense that something exciting just happened, or that tragedy struck--only a sense of annoyance at needing to start over.

The game does provide some help, at least: if you find a certain card in each area and return it to a character at your starting point you’ll unlock extra abilities, including a super helpful “reveal the full map” ability in the second area. However, if you don’t happen across the good cards while venturing around each map, it becomes very difficult to progress. Over hours of play, your success starts to feel arbitrary, and fighting your way through the first area over and over again feels rote and dull.

Loot Rascal's simplicity ends up weakening its prospects as a long-term time investment and it’s not the kind of game that leaves you feeling like you’ve learned much from your losses. The only progress that carries over between playthroughs depends on the kindness of other players: when you die, the enemy that kills you can snatch one of your cards, and if another player encounters that enemy in their game and vanquishes the foe, they can choose to return that card to you, lest their game be haunted by your vengeful ghost.

Loot Rascals card and deck systems are enticing, and its singular aesthetic and strange sense of humor make the game fundamentally likable early on. After a few hours, however, it feels like there isn't a lot to gain for all the effort you're asked to put in. There are fleeting moments of joy when a strategic card collection lets you steamroll through the enemy forces, but the monotony of getting to those moments wears you down in the end.

Categories: Games

Super Bomberman R Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 03/06/2017 - 22:46

It’s been several years since we last saw Bomberman, but if ever there were a perfect time for the bizarre little bomb-crazy robot to make a comeback, the Nintendo Switch launch is it. Long beloved as one of the greatest multiplayer party games, Bomberman’s classic, simple premise is a perfect match for the Switch’s focus on social play.

Super Bomberman R holds on tightly to its roots, with entirely familiar controls and gameplay. For most of the game, you run around a small maze, moving in four directions, planting or throwing bombs to dispatch your enemies. Destroying certain blocks can reveal power-ups that enable you to toss more bombs in a row, increase damage and speed, and change the bombs into different forms. Meanwhile, power-down pickups can reverse effects, which lowers bomb damage and the number of bombs you can throw.

The golden rule of Bomberman is simple: Don’t get blown up. The meat of the game is the multiplayer--and, thankfully, the developers at Konami and HexaDrive didn’t skimp here. Making natural use of the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers, local play allows up to four to gather around the portable screen--or eight when playing on a TV. If you don’t have enough players available, however, there’s also online play for up to eight combatants.

Online multiplayer works well most of the time, but there are occasional moments where the action feels sluggish and unresponsive, as if Bomberman is trudging through mud. While this is a sporadic issue, it's noticeable enough that it begs for a fix. Thankfully, when matches run smoothly, playing online is still enormously enjoyable and competitive in both ranked and unranked matches.

Since each player only needs one Joy-Con to play, Super Bomberman R makes for a highly convenient two-player game. There’s a wide range of battle maps available right from the start, and eight different Bombermen (and Bomberwomen) are available. Points earned while playing can be used to buy even more characters and arenas, and you can even buy headgear to customize your little bomber.

There’s a surprising amount of variety in missions goals over the course of the story mode’s five uniquely themed planets.

Super Bomberman R also includes a story-based campaign that supports drop-in two-player co-op. More than 50 levels of bombing action are backed up by an amusingly goofy story of the Bomberman Bros. stopping the nefarious plot of the Evil Emperor Buggler and his dark bombers. There’s a surprising amount of variety in missions goals over the course of the story mode’s five uniquely themed planets.

While the majority of levels simply focus on destroying a certain number of enemies, other missions cleverly task your bomber with rescuing citizens, finding keys and switches, or surviving endless enemies for a certain period of time. Maps are frequently multilevel as well, which can heavily affect how bombs explode above or below. Bomb blasts can travel over ramps, for instance, but they won’t work across gaps or drops.

The last two levels of each planet revolve around boss battles. The first is a straight-up maze battle, where you must hit your foe with a single blast. The bosses are tricky, however, and seemingly always know the exact right spot to stay in to avoid blasts, so these sections can be surprisingly challenging. The second part of the battle takes place against a giant robotic version of boss in an open arena. The goal is always to use bombs to hit weak spots in order to stun the boss--and then inflict major damage to a central part of your foe.

The bosses, like the rest of the game, are colorful and well designed. Super Bomberman R is slightly modernized, done up in a distinctly retro 3D look. It’s charming, but it’s not overly impressive visually, though the sound effects and score (including J-pop vocal tracks) are a lot of fun. Putting a Bomberman game fully in 3D isn’t necessarily new, but the use of an isometric perspective instead of a top-down view does cause some issues.

The heart of the game--the battle mode--is a welcome retro rush, and decades since the franchise debuted, it’s still one of the best party games around.

At times, this perspective (and the active camera that goes with it) makes it hard to discern gaps, blockers, and minor elevation changes on a map, which can be frustrating when trying to flee enemies or bomb blasts. Your little robot can frequently be obstructed by the huge bosses as well, resulting in instant deaths simply because a giant robot leg blocked your view.

In almost every respect, Super Bomberman R plays it safe with its tried-and-true formula. The story mode is short (less than two hours at most), but fun with some creative boss battles and plenty of nostalgic throwbacks. The heart of the game--the battle mode--is a welcome retro rush, and decades since the franchise debuted, it’s still one of the best party games around.

Categories: Games

Nier: Automata Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 03/06/2017 - 15:00

The post-apocalyptic world of Nier: Automata thrives on its mysteries. Its ruined Earth setting is a playground of mayhem where fashionable androids lay waste to less sophisticated looking robots. Its premise of a never-ending war is initially straightforward. But if you know anything about the game's director, Yoko Taro, then you know to expect the unexpected. That includes everything from an unusual soundtrack steeped in vocals to a battle-hardened heroine who walks with the swagger of a supermodel. Automata also delivers a well-executed and refined combat system, the level of which alone makes Automata well worth the price of admission.

You initially see Automata from the perspective of a female android named 2B who is part of YoRHa, a group of artificial soldiers tasked with wiping the Earth of its hostile robots and their alien creators. This conflict is all the more poignant due to humanity's displacement to the moon, an exodus that occurred hundreds of years ago. Joining 2B on most of her missions is 9S, a male android who lacks 2B's dual weapon-wielding prowess but compensates with invaluable hacking skills. They start off as strangers, but through the obstacles they overcome, an obvious closeness begins to form. This is thanks in part to Automata's sensational anime-as-hell archetypes and story beats.

Given that Earth is utterly overrun with homicidal machines, making Earth hospitable seems like a tall order. But this challenge is softened by the manageable size of Automata's open world, which is equivalent to a small city. It entices exploration without feeling intimidating, and it's hard to get lost once you've run through the same paths a couple times. Much of the backtracking stems from the game's numerable side quests, where you help your fellow androids on simple errands and kill missions. While most of these tasks aren't especially memorable, they do add character to world. Furthermore, monotony is minimized by the convenience of fast travel and swift steeds like moose and boars.

The brightside of being a robot exterminator in Automata is that your canvas of destruction is the product of Platinum Games. Their penchant for feverishly fast and elegant combat is on full display with visuals that echo even the most outrageous attacks from Bayonetta. Combat evolves beyond mindlessly mashing on quick and strong attacks thanks to the variety of bladed weapon styles. Combining any two types produces uniquely flashy animations and, more importantly, damaging results. You can trigger other gorgeous maneuvers by attacking after pulling off a slick dodge cartwheel or by holding down either of the two attack buttons. 9S' own skill with a sword makes him a substantial AI-controlled contributor, and his ability to keep up with 2B make the battles look positively frenzied. Given the demanding yet rewarding high-dexterity combat and the acrobatic skills of 2B, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that Automata is the closest thing there is to a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, also developed by Platinum.

You're expected to use tools and techniques beyond the two main attack inputs if you have any hope of victory in ever encounter. Your pod companion--which echoes Grimoire Weiss, the floating book from the first Nier--provides you with various forms of support. Not only does the pod provide you with a sustained ranged attack, it's another outlet for personalizing your approach to combat. You can swap in a wide variety of passive performance enhancing chips, that provide you with stat buffs and helpful automated commands. Relying on your pod to automatically use one of your health items when your HP drops below a certain point makes healing one less thing to worry about. Your pod allows you to focus on other survival concerns, like kicking ass and looking good in the process.

Given the demanding yet rewarding high-dexterity combat and the acrobatic skills of 2B, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that Automata is the closest thing there is to a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, also developed by Platinum.

If you ever run out of healing items and get murdered by enemy robot, however, you’ll lose your experience points if you can't return to the point of your last death. This is similar to the style of difficulty popularized by Dark Souls with an additional risk of loss: along with the suspense of potentially losing experience you've earned since your last save, you can also lose all of your pod's installed chips, with the exception of the mandatory operating system chip.

While Automata resoundingly delivers that specific flavor of stylish combat found in Platinum's best works, it never overshadows Taro's distinct directorial handiwork and penchant for unconventional game and narrative design. It's the type of production that seamlessly blends story, hack-and-slash combat, and--believe it or not--an engaging bullet-hell shooter component. You don't question the infantile behaviors of many of the enemy robots because they're so darn endearing. And you don't get an explanation for 2B's cosplay-ready gothic lolita outfits, how she manages to move smoothly through a desert in heels, or why some of her comrades behave like self-involved teenagers. You just go along with it because of Automata's captivating world and involving battles.

Taro's unorthodox approach to game design is best exemplified by Automata's multiple endings and the varying degrees of substance in those conclusions. He's not above novelty or gag endings, though the real rewards are the five major endings and the various journeys to each one. You don't get the complete picture until you reach those five endings. As you travel down these various paths, you're not only introduced to new events, but also given new perspectives to moments you've already experienced. Your forward progress isn't propelled by the mere compulsion to achieve 100% completion; you're simply pulled by curiosity to learn more about what happened to Earth and humanity.

Thanks to Platinum Games' knack for riveting and gratifying combat, Automata is Yoko Taro's most exciting game to date. The combat mechanics click after hurdling a low learning curve, and the end result is a skillful dance where balletic dodges complement wushu-inspired aggression. Moreover, this multi-ending trip is generously peppered with surprises and revelations, as well as easter eggs that call back to the first game and the Drakengard series from which Nier spun off. It's a meaty, often exhilarating trek that showcases Platinum Games' and Yoko Taro's unique blend of genius.

Categories: Games

Skylanders Imaginators Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/02/2017 - 18:50

Update March 2: Additional information about the Switch version of the game has been added to the bottom of the review.

I've always thought of the Skylanders series as gateway titles for the next generation of gamers, with the series' kid-friendly aesthetic and forgiving difficulty serving as gentle introductions to the wider world of games. Skylanders Imaginators is, in that sense, an obvious, almost inevitable next step. With Imaginators, the Skylanders go further along along the gaming evolutionary path, adding RPG-like staples such as full character customisation, loot drops, and a more complex stats system for your weapons/gear. It's a welcome move for the franchise, as it adds a compelling twist to the tried-and-true Skylanders formula.

It's an twist that's ended up being the redeeming quality for for this latest instalment. Imaginators is, at its core, a pretty standard action platformer, and it comes up lacking when compared to the more varied and vividly imaginative recent games in the series (Superchargers and Trap Team). But that new level of customisation and the ability to constantly tinker with your character makes it feel like a different experience. This makes Imaginators the most interesting Skylanders to play in years, even if it's not the most fun.

It all starts with characters, or in this case, the ability to create your own Skylander from scratch. To create a Skylander, you're going to need a creation crystal, one of the new sets of physical toys that will debut with this year's game. Like other Skylander toys, placing a creation crystal on the real-world Skylanders portal will bring whatever character is saved onto the crystal into your game. Each crystal has a specific element attached to it (such as life, earth, undead, and so on), and the first thing you'll have to choose is what class you want your new Skylander to be. These classes fit gaming's broad archetypes such as brawlers, ranged specialists, mages, and more, and are forever locked once you make your initial decision (you can, however, change your character's looks at any time).

This is where the tricky topic of commerce in the Skylanders series enters the conversation. Choosing a character class is actually a pretty big decision in Imaginators, as the classes are distinct enough that your playstyle will be impacted by class. I played most of the game as a Bazooker class, which specialises in ranged explosives, and switching over to a more melee-focused Brawler class at certain points forced me to significantly alter my approach to combat situations. Of course, with your class locked to a creation crystal, you'll need to buy more if you want to play as any of the others. Buying new toys to experience more of the game is a Skylanders tradition, and while there's a huge amount of content here that can be accessed with just the basic starter packs, that commercial element of the franchise remains the same.

To its credit, the game doesn't limit your ability to change how your character looks at any point. Imaginators doesn't quite have the same level of customisation depth as say, something like a WWE 2K17 or a Skyrim, but what is there is pretty expansive. You can choose body parts from a wide selection of preset choices, tinker with the coloring of individual pieces, select the pitch and tone of your character's voice, change their battle music, and more. All of this customisation makes for a system where you can create a Skylander that feels pretty unique, and that you can easily get attached to because of the level of care you can pour into its creation. My favorite piece of customisation was the ability to change catchphrases; it always brought a smile to my face every time Nuggets, my Bazooker character, screamed out "I'm crazy for my muscles" before heading into battle.

Your created characters can equip weapons and gear, and while gear isn't anything new in a Skylanders game, the frequency of drops has significantly increased, making the loot experience here more akin to a less intense version of a Diablo or Destiny. Defeating bosses, completing objectives, or even just making it to certain areas all result in dropped chests that contain loot (ranked common, rare, epic, or ultimate), and this loot isn't restricted to just gear. New body parts, catchphrases, and even sound effects will also drop, giving you the option to continually tinker with your character's look if you feel the urge to do so.

My seven-year-old son--who I played a lot of the Imaginators campaign with--certainly did, and he would continually (or more accurately, annoyingly) stop to equip a new shoulder guard, or swap in a new tail for his character, or change the size and shape of said character completely. As for me, the tinkering became fairly infrequent as the game wore on. Outside of the novelty of a cool new body part, I found little reason to swap out gear and weapons (the only things that actually make a difference to your character's stats) after the halfway point in the game, thanks to generous drops that bestowed several ultimate-level pieces of loot fairly early on. A better, more restrictive loot drop system would make Imaginators a more compelling experience for grown-up gamers, but from my focus group of one (ie, my son), the target audience seems to be in love with the constant stop-and-swap feel that this game provides.

One of the new Skylander Creation Crystals.

It's a pity, then, that all of this customisation is limited to your created characters, and not to the wider cast of both new and existing Skylanders. There's no way to equip any of the dropped gear or weapons on any non-player created characters, so any old Skylander toys you may have don't benefit from the most significant additions that Imaginators brings. The new range of figures released for this year's game--called Senseis--do feature special ultimate moves that are both flashy and impactful, but compared to the cool new personalisation options you have with created characters, the Senseis and any plain old Skylanders come off as rather dull.

If it wasn't for the customisation options and the constant allure of what the next loot drop will bring, Imaginators too would come off as a little dull. That's not to say it's boring; Imaginators' lengthy campaign is a pleasing enough romp, but it's one that leans a little heavily on tried and true action platformer tropes. Simple puzzles, basic platforming, and multi-stage boss fights abound, and there are only a few instances where Imaginators breaks out of this traditional mold. It's not groundbreaking in any sense, and certainly feels like the most rote Skylanders experience in a while.

A better, more restrictive loot drop system would make Imaginators a more compelling experience for grown-up gamers.

But that new level of character personalisation elevates Imaginators from being decidedly average. The game also allows you to take your character into the real world, with a phone app that allows you take your console creation and order actual t-shirts, physical cards (that contains your character data and act like a Skylander toy when you place it on a portal), and even a 3D-printed toy (apparently in very limited quantities). It's not something I've tried yet, but given the close bond I feel with my character Nuggets, it may be something I do soon. With Imaginators, the Skylanders series isn't pushing any gaming boundaries, but at least it has character.

Update March 2: Skylanders Imaginators is being released as one of the Nintendo Switch's launch titles, and in terms of features and content it's similar to its other console platforms. What is different, though, is how you interact with the game's physical toys. The Switch version of Imaginators has no physical portal, and instead you'll use the Switch controllers' built-in NFC reader to scan in your toys/characters. The characters will then be added to your roster, and can be accessed at any point during the game without having to rescan them in. The advantage, of course, is that it plays to the mobile nature of the Switch, allowing you to take Imaginators on the road without having to lug all your Skylander toys with you. The downside is the loss of that important, tactile feel of swapping your toys as your mood takes you. It slightly lessens that connection you have with the physical, toy side of the franchise, but doesn't impact the overall quality of the game itself.

Categories: Games

1-2-Switch Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:00

1-2-Switch, by its very nature, lacks depth. A collection of 28 minigames brings with it broad appeal in its variety--activities include shooting cowboys, strumming an air guitar, cradling a baby to sleep, and more--but little in the way of long-lasting fun or replay value. Wii Sports faced the same problem 10 years ago, and solved it by basing its party games on real-world activities that were enjoyable in themselves before distilling them to simple, satisfying mechanics that were approachable for anyone and everyone. In swinging for the same pitch, 1-2-Switch misses as often as it hits, but it is nevertheless huge fun in the right environment.

Like Wii Sports, 1-2-Switch exists to demonstrate the capability of the hardware it launches with. Many of its minigames, such as the Harry Potter-vs-Voldemort-inspired Wizard, the swing fest Sword Fight, or the catwalk simulator Runway, seek to show off the Joy-Cons' impressive motion tracking by wrapping them in quirky and competitive activities, while also being easy to pick-up-and-play on the move.

While Wizard's TV-based mirroring of your real-world duel means it works well, many of the other motion-based games--especially Table Tennis and Baseball--suffer due to the lack of a visual aid. Hitting a ball between two players is tricky when there's no ball--physical or virtual--to hit. These games rely on timing and the ability to hear a fastball coming your way, but the timing often seems random, and in a party setting peace and quiet is rarely the most plentiful commodity--more than a slight problem for a party game. This lack of feedback leads to a frustrating loss or a hollow win. Either way, these minigames are the ones relegated to the bottom of the pile. Far better are those that use the Joy-Cons' motion as a supplement to the controllers' HD rumble capacity and the TV screen. Safe Crack and Joy-Con Rotation both use the tiny pads' accelerometers and vibrations to great effect while simultaneously giving you helpful, and aesthetically attractive, cues on-screen.

1-2-Switch really shines, however, when it has you look away from the TV and into the eyes of your opponent. Quick Draw, which tests who owns the quicker trigger finger, and Samurai Training, in which one player must correctly predict the swing of and then catch their opponent's sword, are both captivating and hilarious in equal measure. These can still suffer in a noisy environment, but the immediately more social and engaging prospect of staring into your friend's (read: enemy's) soul as you whack them on the head with a pretend sword is a joy. Locking eyes with an opponent, spaghetti western soundtrack blaring, hand hovering over your trusty Nintendo-branded 'revolver,' ears peeled for the "FIRE" command--you could cut the tension with a Joy-Con, and that makes it even funnier when you unintentionally hurl your controller across the room. Serves me right for ignoring the wrist straps, I guess.

1-2-Switch really shines when it has you look away from the TV and into the eyes of your opponent.

Eye contact is also key to a number of 1-2-Switch's more suggestive games. In a somewhat surprising move for the usually resolutely family-focused company, Nintendo has produced a title whose high points are often centred around euphemisms of--shall we say--'lewd acts.' Milk sees you pull on the teats of a virtual cow, Eating Contest sees you hold a Joy-Con close to your face to eat a footlong sub, and Soda Shake has you shaking an imaginary bottle of pop until it bursts, showering its shakers. These minigames are all dressed up innocently enough, of course, but are quite clearly designed to cultivate thoughts of a rather more X-rated nature. Some may call it a vulgar attempt to please both knowing adults and unsuspecting kids with double entendres, but seeing your friends' faces as they realize what hand gestures they're making serves up some of the funniest moments 1-2-Switch has to offer.

Unfortunately, even these highlights wear thin all too soon when playing with the same people. 1-2-Switch's considerable breadth (there are plenty of activities to try) but lack of depth (those activities are mostly shallow) is reflected in its lasting appeal. Every new person I introduced to the game enjoyed their time with it, and my buzz was vicariously renewed with every initiation. But playing any one minigame more than a handful of times with those same people leads to that buzz fading rapidly. The innuendo-laden games suffer most from this since they're a one-note joke--a funny one, but one-note nonetheless. The only ones to survive the effect of diminishing returns are those that either have a layer of strategy--Samurai Training and Fake Draw (identical to Quick Draw but the announcer will fool you with red herrings like "FRUIT" or "FILE")--or have a high score component. Even this is a wasted opportunity; no leaderboards or Wii Sports-style skill level trackers mean you only find out what the record for the quickest shot is when you break it, starving 1-2-Switch of any meaningful meta-competition element.

1-2-Switch, then, feels a little like a wasted opportunity. Many of its minigames are duds that are too limited to be fun on their first attempt, let alone their 100th, and the remainder mostly don't have the depth to maintain a consistent enough high to warrant many playthroughs with the same crowd. There's no doubt 1-2-Switch should have been packed in with the Nintendo Switch, and the decision to sell it separately goes against every fibre of its varied-but-shallow DNA. But 1-2-Switch, at its best, delivers some hilarious moments. Seeing an uninitiated friend milk a cow, looking into your dad's eyes as you beat him to the trigger in Quick Draw, and making a fool of yourself strutting down Runway's catwalk is all amazing fun, even if it is short-lived.

Does it live up to Wii Sports? Not a chance. But that doesn't stop 1-2-Switch being an entertaining minigame collection--just make sure you've got enough willing friends to maintain your own fading high.

Categories: Games

The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/02/2017 - 12:00

From its mysterious opening to its action-packed conclusion, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a revolution for Nintendo's revered series. It's both a return to form and a leap into uncharted territory, and it exceeds expectations on both fronts. The game takes designs and mechanics perfected in other games and reworks them for its own purposes to create something wholly new, but also something that still feels quintessentially like a Zelda game. It's a truly magical work of art that embodies Nintendo's unique talents, and a game that everyone should play regardless of their affinity for the series' past.

More than a typical Hyrule fantasy, Breath of the Wild is a daunting survival game that forces you to think in entirely new ways. You have to be cautious, creative, and resourceful in your efforts to battle the wilderness. Outside of armor, you have to source everything from the field. You earn new weapons by stealing from enemies and prepare restorative meals and elixirs by combining resources found in the environment. Death comes quickly, and whether it's at the hand of a formidable enemy or because you charged unprepared down a treacherous path, you're forced to reconsider almost everything you've learned from past Zelda games. There's so much to see, to accomplish, and to learn that you never feel like you have control over the world. This is a great thing. Where so many games front-load excitement and wonder, Breath of the Wild sustains the thrill of unexpected discoveries throughout.

Amazement sets in immediately after emerging from a tomb-like cave where the familiar hero Link has spent the last 100 years in hibernation. When he trots to the edge of a cliff and the new, massive Hyrule comes into view, you're faced with the striking scale of the world, which is by far the largest the series has ever seen. You will cross vast plains and towering mountains to achieve your goals, all the while contending with harsh weather and Link's physical limitations. Despite a few instances of frame rate dips, Hyrule is consistently impressive to behold, triggering bliss and excitement in equal measure.

You begin your series-standard quest to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda with little more than a tree branch to defend yourself from roaming goblins. However, it doesn't take long to build up a diverse arsenal. Nearly every enemy carries a weapon or a shield, and if you can beat them, their gear is yours for the taking. This is also a godsend given that every weapon has finite durability. You will blow through dozens if not hundreds of weapons during your adventure, which no doubt feels strange at first, especially since gear often defined your progress in previous Zelda games. It can feel crushing when a particularly cool weapon is destroyed mid-battle, but you learn to move on. There's no shortage of new gear to discover, and though you aren't able to utilize a consistent stable of familiar weapons, you learn to expect that for every one you've lost, there's something better coming down the road.

In practice, the weapon you wield is important but not necessarily as important as how you control it. Enemies are intelligent and utilize wildly different tactics that force you to diligently study every aspect of their behavior. Basic enemies can be toppled through careful use of a shield, but there are harder enemies that will destroy this defense in a single hit. In these cases, it’s imperative that you parry or dodge an attack at just the right time, which will trigger a moment of slow-motion that allows you to unleash a flurry of attacks against your vulnerable foe. These moves are your last line of defense when the going gets tough, and they require precise timing to execute. Given the myriad enemies and weapons you're up against, mastery feels almost unattainable even with substantial practice. However, that also means you are constantly learning in the face of unforeseen challenges.

There are innumerable unexpected events that can happen. The game never teaches you, for example, that holstering your shield after blocking enemy arrows will add them to your inventory. You're never told that grazing an enemy's wooden weapon with a fire arrow by accident will set it ablaze, thus making the fight harder for you in the long run. These occurrences fuel exciting stories between players, which feels like a rarity in a world where games go so far out of the way to ensure that you know how everything works. Even 50 hours in--and after you're capable of bringing down Ganon--there are still intimidating enemies to be found and intricate rules to study. Your power and wisdom grow as you progress, but you never feel totally invincible, which allows even late-game exploration to be feel tense and rewarding.

Beyond weaponry, Link gains access to magical skills known as runes. These include the ability to move metallic objects with a magical tether, which can be useful for, among other tricks, dropping large iron boxes on unsuspecting enemies. Link can also freeze enemies and objects in place for a limited amount of time. When an object is frozen, it absorbs energy rather than reacting immediately to whatever force you lay into it. And when time unfreezes, all that collected force is exerted in an instant. This allows you to move objects that are otherwise too heavy for Link to control, and gives you a chance to strike a defenseless enemy multiple times without fear of reprisal. Runes prove to be a wonderful source of creativity and problem solving, both in combat and when managing puzzles.

The game's four main dungeons are primarily puzzle focused, with only a few enemies sprinkled throughout. They are a bit unusual compared to dungeons in past Zelda games in that you aren't focused on finding keys to open doors. Instead, the goal is to manipulate the dungeon itself, to literally change its form in order to access important areas. It's a wonderful break from tradition, while you still get a challenging boss battle to look forward to at the end. Gone are the oddly charming bosses from Zelda's past; they've been replaced with dark and twisted fiends that are powerful combatants. Like your fights against normal enemies, you have to move and act deliberately, or suffer for your cockiness.

Breath of the Wild's big dungeons are important, but they are almost less of a draw than the smaller shrines that dot the world. There are reportedly 100 of these mini-dungeons strewn across the map, and the vast majority of them feature puzzles that test your understanding and mastery of Link's rune abilities. Some can be completed in a few minutes, but there are plenty more containing extensive, multi-step processes. Compared to roughing it in nature, these brain teasers are an excellent respite, and make great use of Breath of the Wild's impressive physics system. Figuring out what to do is only half the battle. The rest comes down to precise execution. Therefore, solving even simple puzzles can feel immensely rewarding.

When you look across Hyrule in search of your next destination, the faint orange glow of a new shrine is difficult to ignore. They are one of many distractions that cause you to veer off track. Seeking them out won't help you complete the game any faster--not that you should rush through Breath of the Wild in the first place--but they are rewarding opportunities that expose you to the far corners of Hyrule, where you often catch whiffs of something new and mysterious laying in wait.

Somewhat surprisingly, exploration often proves far more challenging than combat or puzzle solving. Link travels primarily on foot, and he can sprint as long as his stamina meter allows before having to catch his breath. Link can also climb vertical surfaces like cliffs and walls now, but again, he's at the mercy of his physical strength. Exploration may be a struggle at times due to Link's limitations and harsh weather that hinders his capabilities, but to avoid long treks is to rob yourself of some of the best moments of discovery in Breath of the Wild, and the sense of satisfaction you feel for overcoming its most foreboding environments. Equipping metal weapons and armor will turn Link into a veritable lightning rod, and if you're climbing a mountain when it starts to rain, you won't be able to climb more than a few feet before losing your grip and sliding back down. Bring a wooden shield to the fiery slopes of Mount Eldin, and watch it set ablaze on your back while Link's health slowly slips away.

Hyrule is a beautiful world to behold from the top of a mountain, but perching Link on high has other benefits. In addition to runes, Link obtains a paraglider early on in the game, which he then carries with him at all times. It's useful when you fall off a tall building or cliff, but it's also a source of levity after taxing fights and daunting hikes. Your reward for scaling a mountain or tower is the opportunity to soar through the sky and cross large tracts of land with your glider. And if you're skillful, you can use your shield as a veritable snowboard to glide down grassy hills and frozen slopes. Granted, Link can surf down hills at any time as long as his shield can handle the wear and tear, but it’s especially gratifying to drop onto a slope after flying over a massive canyon or a dense forest and coast into a town in style.

The few towns that exist in the new Hyrule mimic the understated and rural qualities seen in Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. Equally charming are the hikers you meet on trails. These lonely yet upbeat adventurers offer humorous quips, or perhaps a side quest with a quirky premise. You spend so much time fighting to survive, all while under the cloud of your impending fight with the dark and powerful Ganon. By contrast, your interactions with NPCs are opportunities to slow down and help out a friendly stranger in need. Though you have an overarching goal in mind, Breath of the Wild's delightful distractions often prove to be its most memorable moments.

If you've ever hiked deep into the wilderness and found yourself awash in wonderment and perhaps guilt for living a life steeped in modern indulgences, Breath of the Wild's reverence for the natural world will strike a chord. It's the way the rising sun graces blades of grass as you climb a steep hill. It's the flutter of a few well-timed piano notes that dance in your ear and harmonize with your internal childlike amazement. And it's the unwavering delight and excitement that each new discovery brings. It can come when you reveal a new portion of the world map and find a curious landmark, but there's an almost endless stream of smaller discoveries to make as you move about Hyrule.

No matter how gorgeous its environments are, how clever its enemies are, and how tricky its puzzles get, the fact that Breath of the Wild continues to surprise you with newfound rules and possibilities after dozens of hours is by far its most valuable quality. It's a game that allows you to feel gradually more and more empowered yet simultaneously manages to retain a sense of challenge and mystery--which, together, creates a steady, consistent feeling of gratification throughout the entire experience. Breath of the Wild is a defining moment for The Legend of Zelda series, and the most impressive game Nintendo has ever created.

Categories: Games

Rihanna And Dior’s Collaboration Is Going to Take Over Your Instagram

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 03/01/2017 - 12:50
Graphic tees that make a statement are in, so why not wear the Dior version?
Categories: Fashion

Night In The Woods Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/01/2017 - 03:39

Both intensely personal and widely relatable, Night in the Woods doesn’t just tell a story--it gracefully captures complex, often unpleasant feelings and experiences. From the quiet melancholy of doing nothing on a rainy day to the emotional vacuum of severe depression, I felt deeply, sometimes too deeply, while wandering through the cartoon-animal version of a small Midwestern town. Its witty writing and character development keep its crushing existential themes grounded, making Night in the Woods one of the most evocative games I’ve played in a long time.

Night in the Woods follows 20-year-old Mae Borowski--who happens to be a cat--after she drops out of college in the beginning of fall and returns to her tiny hometown of Possum Springs. She’s an angsty troublemaker with a bit of a rap sheet and a sharp tongue, and you spend her first few days back kicking around town and catching up with people, including her high school friends Bea and Gregg. A few people allude to something awful Mae did in the past, while others talk about a kid from her high school who has gone missing.

There's enough small-town curiosity in those short, early interactions to be intriguing, but there are plenty of awkward moments that keep Mae’s homecoming feeling ordinary. You can talk to an old teacher (who likes Mae despite her awful behavior) and an elderly neighbor (who considers Mae a horrible nuisance), and it feels very real, like any small talk in your hometown--just with Mae’s distinct brand of snark. These interactions both offset and highlight the mysterious elements of Possum Springs, a balance Night in the Woods masterfully strikes throughout the entire story.

You’ll spend most of your time exploring Possum Springs through light platforming and optional interactions with the same few people you want to talk to, broken up by lighthearted, simple mini-games. For most of the game, you take things day by day, and that slow drip of information bolsters the development of Mae and her friends. This structure manages to feel aimless without being purposeless; every day is similar but not the same, and there’s always something new to learn about a neighbor or a dry remark from Mae to make the same few sights feel different each time. It’s understated worldbuilding that enhances the impact of the main story--especially through a better connection to Mae, her friends, and Possum Springs as a whole.

Many days end with a choice of activity, like going to the mall with one childhood friend or "doing crimes" with another. This is when a lot of the bigger--and stranger--events take place. Sometimes things are lighthearted, like sneaking into an abandoned grocery store just for the fun of it, but there are also serious talks about past mistakes or what exactly Mae is doing with her life. Watching her struggle to articulate her problems and awkwardly dodge questions about college is hard--especially if you’ve ever been in a similar position. Combined with melancholic music, a lot of Night in the Woods evokes the feeling of lying in bed all day, despondent and paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty.

Initially, I had an incredibly hard time getting through more than a day without having to step away from the game for a bit. At 20 I was in a bad place with both school and depression, much like Mae, and playing felt more like looking in a very shameful mirror. But there’s enough going on in Possum Springs to distract from that early-20s, nearly drowning feeling, and instead of closing my game, I looked forward to the respite of mini-games and visiting friends at work, both for Mae’s sake and for mine.

I began checking every corner of town hoping to find the smallest or silliest of moments, and I often got them. I shoplifted pretzels (in a red-light, green-light style mini-game) for baby rats just to see what would happen if I fed them, and I listened to a neighbor’s dumb poetry every day because she could easily have been someone I know in real life. At the center of Night in the Woods is a story about a young adult who has gone numb, and those experiences on the periphery are what she--and anyone who’s lived through an emotional void--does to feel anything at all.

The unfortunate reality is that finicky controls, and even some scenes that feel forced, occasionally interrupt Night in the Woods’ evocative atmosphere. More than one scene requires you to complete simple platforming to proceed, for example; sometimes it’s unnecessarily hard to execute thanks to poorly placed platforms, and in general, having a hard objective is at odds with a game that is otherwise not really gamified.

At the center of Night in the Woods is a story about a young adult who has gone numb, and those experiences on the periphery are what she--and anyone who’s lived through an emotional void--does to feel anything at all.

Night in the Woods does have a game-within-a-game: a dungeon-crawler called Demontower that you can play on Mae’s computer. It’s another good distraction--I played it right before having Mae go to bed, much like I would in real life--and it’s a throwback to the kinds of games you might have put a lot of hours into in the mid-2000s. As a cute detail, you can pick up where Mae apparently left off a decade earlier (and if you don’t like Demontower, you can just go on the computer to IM your friends after a night out).

By the third and final act of the game, I had grown seriously attached to Mae and her crew of deeply flawed but charming weirdos. Their experiences in a struggling, dead-end town are relatable even if you’re nothing like them--and that’s what gives Night in the Woods its emotional impact.

From beginning to end to epilogue, Night in the Woods is ultimately open to individual interpretation. How you relate to it depends on your own experiences and choices, including Mae’s dialogue and who you decide to spend time with. Though its charming and angsty story works well on its own merits, it’s special because of how it prioritizes conveying emotion over telling a straight narrative.

Categories: Games

Saint Laurent Just Created Our Dream Disco Boots

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 03/01/2017 - 01:28
Plus four other items we're on the waiting list for...
Categories: Fashion

Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 02/28/2017 - 23:18

Few could have predicted that the niche "social farm simulator" genre would become a hotbed of competition in 2017, but thanks to trademark shenanigans and the surprising success of indie favorite Stardew Valley, that’s where we are today. Publisher XSEED Games is once again looking to capture part of the audience for these charming life adventures with Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns.The game delivers a warm-hearted, relaxing experience that rewards patience and perseverance, even if it does come with a few issues.

The game begins with a flashback to a time where your character had a life-affirming experience at the farm as a young child, inspiring them to dream about running their own farm. Flash forward to the present, where you’re going off with your uncle Frank to begin a new life as a fledgling farmer--though not without some stern disapproval from your father, who isn't convinced you have what it takes to endure the harsh realities of country living. Can you grow from an inexperienced greenhorn into a farming wunderkind, all while forming important interpersonal relationships and eventually finding the love of your life? That’s what Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns is all about. Well, that and shoveling cow manure from time to time.

The basic formula that drives Trio of Towns is familiar by this point: You operate on a day-to-day schedule, with an in-game timer that flows from morning to night each day. Performing activities like cultivating crops, tending to livestock, fishing, mining, or clearing out weeds, trees, and boulders from your fields consumes your stamina, which can be refilled by eating food or resting (and moving on to the next day). Eventually, your hard work will pay off with a bountiful harvest, yielding tender veggies, juicy fruit, and prime produce you can sell to earn money and invest further in your little farmstead. You can also head into town and interact with the local folks, forming important social relationships and eventually, after many moons, finding a nice young lad/lass to settle down with.

The amount of time and effort this will all take depends on the difficulty you choose at startup: "Seedling" difficulty makes things a fair bit more gentle, giving you more money for your sales and work and decreasing stamina consumption. If you want a more chill farming experience--and, really, given this genre’s appeal as "unwind and relax"-style games, many people do--you can pick this difficulty with no repercussions. If you’re really invested in the simulation aspect, however, there's a stricter difficulty you can choose that puts more emphasis on the day-to-day micromanagement.

Trio of Towns makes the most of the aging 3DS hardware, giving players nicely rendered environments and an attractive cast of NPCs to engage with. 3D effects are used sparingly for things like the HUD, text boxes, and various graphical flourishes. Sometimes the game will try to do too much, however, causing it to chug a little when there's a big rainstorm or a flurry of flower petals zipping across the screen. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it can be somewhat distracting.

One of the biggest changes in Trio of Towns is that, instead of one central hub town to explore, you now have three separate population centers to engage with, each with their own distinct flavor. Westown is a typical Western-inspired city, dotted with mines, train tracks, and cacti, while Lulukoko is a Hawaiian-themed tropical city filled with palm trees, exotic animals, and a beautiful oceanside ripe for fishing. The final area, Tsuyukusa, is a village with a classical Japanese flair, filled with blooming sakura trees, rice paddies, and flowing river water. Each of these villages has a unique culture and vibe to it, slightly changing the way you interact with the people who live there and giving you a variety of new activities and festivals to engage with over the course of the year. They also provide you with opportunities to acquire exotic livestock and crops--it's pretty darn neat to be able to raise banana trees right beside rice and tomatoes, and the variety of stuff you can work with lets you customize and specialize to your heart's content.

Of course, these towns also offer a new layer of simulation micromanagement. You build a personal relationship with each town separately by doing simple part-time jobs for residents (usually quick, somewhat tedious activities like parcel delivery or variations on standard farm chores, though more interesting stuff eventually opens up), participating in local events, and shipping items for sale to specific areas through the use of the farm's shipping bin (which, thankfully, eliminates the need to physically travel to each town simply to sell stuff). Sometimes you'll hit a snag in building your relationships with each area, blocking progress until you fulfill a set of arbitrary requirements to progress further.

Other changes in Trio of Towns are smaller but still help change up the formula enough to keep the game from feeling overly familiar. Foraging for wild plants and materials is more prevalent here, allowing you to sustain yourself on harvesting things growing outside your fields if the going ever starts getting a little rough. Your crops now have individual values for elements like color and juiciness, and later in the game, when you're entering competitions and fulfilling specific requests, growing for specific crop qualities becomes very important.

Building decorations for your farm (called "farm circles") can not only make your fields look incredibly swanky but can also grant you special effects that will aid you in your agricultural endeavors. Tools can be improved and customized to increase effectiveness and efficiency, using less stamina to produce better results. The added complexity and customization these changes offer make for a more varied, interesting farming experience, adding to that sweet, sweet sense of satisfaction you get when that paycheck comes in and you can splurge on the cool farm bits you've always wanted.

But while Trio of Towns does add a few neat new ideas, it falters a bit in streamlining and eliminating some of the tediousness that's been present in this genre for many years. I know--farming is hard, tedious work, so it makes sense that some of that would be present in a farming-themed game, but would improving the user interface a little really affect the feeling of "hard work yields satisfaction" these games deliver? The rucksack is a mess, with similar items taking up separate slots for reasons I can’t understand. You can’t assign specific, commonly used tools to controller buttons to make things easier when doing your morning farming routine. Instead, you have to open up a menu, select a tool, then manually put it away when done.

The same goes with items--it takes a surprising amount of time and button presses to do something as simple as checking your pocket planner to see whose birthday it is. (You can assign specific items to a shortcut menu, but as I found out when attempting to put my planner on this menu, it treats all items assigned this way as something you hold and throw around rather than something you use.) Given the increase in the number of towns, it would also have been nice to have an in-game item that let me keep detailed notes on each of the game’s many characters to help me with boosting my social standing.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Trio of Towns, though, is that its narrative feels a bit weak. The core conceit of "I have to impress my stern father" isn’t terribly compelling as a plot mover, and rarely does the game make a move that makes you genuinely invested in the plight of the people in the titular Trio of Towns. Yes, you do learn a lot about the (sometimes tragic) backstory of your chosen romantic interest over time, but compared to the standards set by Stardew Valley, the story-related elements of Trio of Towns feel a little underwhelming.

But even with some annoying interface issues and a handful of other frustrations (why am I failing delivery quests when I know I put the right items in the shipping bin in time?), Trio of Towns manages to deliver a fun, relaxing experience that's engaging and charming. Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns might not be that revolutionary step forward for this little sub-genre just yet, but it's a pleasant little diversion in its own right that's well worth your time.

Categories: Games
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