Lego DC Super-Villains Review: Mediocre Mischief-Makers

It's been obvious for a very long time that Lego games iterate more than innovate. If you pick up a Lego title, you are guaranteed a wholesome romp in whichever licensed universe is at hand. Everything is breakable and spits out glittery, golden collectibles when destroyed. Beloved characters are Lego-fied and reenact their famous antics with an extra dollop of cartoon absurdity. Those qualities remain appealing, but every so often, developer Traveller's Tales stumbles onto an idea that requires an extra bit of creativity to really make it sing. Sometimes TT steps up to the plate, like it did for Lego City Undercover and Lego Dimensions. Other times, well, it doesn't. It's a little sad to see Lego DC Super-Villains fall into the latter category.

The issue here really comes down to the premise. The idea of subverting the Lego Batman playbook and making a game that's all about DC Comics villains is a great one in theory. However, opening up the game to the entire roster of DC villains has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting just how weak DC's broad slate of evil is. Sure, you're doing fine when you've got The Joker using Lex Luthor as a straight man, or when big, unique baddies like Sinestro and Gorilla Grodd start showing up, but much of the game's story mode has you saddled with third-string riff-raff like Heat Wave and Malcolm Merlyn for extended stretches. Somehow, both Captain Cold and Killer Frost figure heavily into the main story, but the far more compelling Mr. Freeze doesn't.

There's a fertile concept in the idea of the loser villains hatching a plan to head up to the big leagues, but the actual plot takes a far less interesting course: The Justice League gets captured and replaced by the Justice Syndicate, who comic fans probably know as the Crime Syndicate of America, a super-powered group from alternate dimension Earth-3. On the surface, it looks like the Syndicate is doing a great job cleaning up crime, but the Syndicate's going a lot harder on the bad guys than the League ever would, leading the Legion of Doom to gather up a slew of recruits and take the fight to the Syndicate.

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The wild card would appear, at first glance, to be you. At the outset, you get to create your own custom villain who ends up joining the Legion. It's an impressive slew of options you get at the start of the game, and an even more extensive selection is available as you play, earn more powers, and unlock more parts. Everything from your villain’s haircut, to their weapon of choice, which arm they use to shoot energy at their enemies, to even what that energy looks like can be customized. It’s an extensive collection of options from the moment you start the game, and almost intimidatingly vast by the end. My first villain took maybe an hour to create and be happy with, after which I watched as my lovingly crafted superhero was sidelined for most of the story.

Unfortunately, your custom villain is not the star of the game--they don't even have a voice--and no matter how badass you make yourself, all the other villains simply refer to you as Rookie (except for Harley Quinn, who calls you Dr. Doesn't-Talk-Much). You're occasionally called upon to use your technical skills to open a specific door, and you are able to absorb new powers along the way, but for the most part your budding baddie has almost no impact or meaningful presence in the story. Instead, most of the game's levels boil down to a formula: A group of one or two big-ticket villains and one or two small-timers go to a familiar locale--Gotham, Metropolis, Smallville, Belle Reve prison--to free some more of their criminal friends, and run into some of the remaining small-time heroes in the process, e.g. the Teen Titans or Nightwing.

The moment-to-moment gameplay remains as simple and accessible as ever; combat boils down to spamming a single attack button, with the safety net of infinite lives, and there's some very rudimentary platforming. Finding secrets usually just means running around breaking everything until a shiny new toy pops out. There's nothing really wrong with that by itself, given the Lego games’ appeal to a younger audience, and watching Lego structures explode into a million pieces really hasn’t lost much of its innate joy, even after all this time. The problem is, only a few esoteric sliding tile puzzles differentiate the game mechanically from things the Lego Batman games were doing 10 years ago.

The level design in particular is a major strike against the game. It attempts to evoke a sense of chaos and disorder for the villains to feel at home in, but everything is so cluttered and elaborate, it's hard to know what's breakable and what's not, which character you're controlling, and what you can actually interact with. The wanton destruction that’s kind of Lego’s bread-and-butter loses something when the area being destroyed looks like a mess to begin with.

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The villains themselves are well-animated, and great care has gone into differentiating the hundreds of playable baddies from each other, be it all of the Joker's attacks ending with theatrical flourishes, Killer Frost's ballerina moves, or Gorilla Grodd being able to literally leap over tall buildings in a single bound. There's a ton of overlap from the small-timers, though, and the alternative choices don't provide you with a reason to want to use them. Even the relatively easy attention grab that comes from having much of the voice cast from both the Superman and Batman Animated Series from the '90s show up--including Mark Hamill's iconic Joker, and a delightfully up-for-anything Michael Ironside reprising his role as Darkseid--doesn't quite land due to the more interesting villains taking a backseat.

Playing as all villains, you'd think there'd be more opportunity to wreak havoc on Metropolis or Gotham City, even if it's in an E-for-Everyone kind of way, but there isn't. The best part of the game is once the main story is over and you can just roam around the rather expansive open areas at will. Any and all villains unlocked during the game are accessible, and there's tons of little sidequests and races to take on. This is always the best part about the Lego games, though.

Ultimately, Lego DC Super-Villains goes down as another cookie-cutter Lego game, and while there's still plenty of merry mayhem to unleash, it's the same kind of mayhem we've seen before. What should be as wild and riotous as the Clown Prince of Crime comes off as just another mild-mannered reporter.

Posted on 20 October 2018 | 4:30 pm

Dark Souls Remastered Switch Review: A Very Special Revisit

When it comes to delivering a memorable and tense experience, not many games can match up to the original Dark Souls. Many fans swear by the approach From Software takes with its stoic and uncompromisingly bleak action-RPG series where one wrong move can cost you dearly, and it's become one of the most challenging and anxiety-inducing franchises in recent memory. Coming off the recent release of Dark Souls Remastered on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, the Souls series now brings its particular style of high-pressure gameplay to the Switch--marking its first appearance on a Nintendo console.

While this new release isn't as visually and technically impressive as the other current-gen versions, it is an admirable port that reinforces what makes Dark Souls memorable. It effectively makes use of the Switch's capabilities as a portable console, which in turn offers a slightly different feel to the Souls experience that's surprisingly refreshing.

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As a recap, Dark Souls Remastered is an enhanced port of the original 2011 game. On PC, PS4, and Xbox One, the remaster runs at 4K and at 60 FPS and features a much sharper visual look, along with a suite of quality-of-life improvements--such as improved matchmaking with dedicated servers and a variety of gameplay tweaks. The Switch version is very much in line with what came before. However, due to the limitations of the system's hardware, it's seen some clear downgrades compared to the previous Remastered releases.

While playing through the Switch version, it felt closer to the original PS3 and Xbox 360 releases, albeit far more stable. Running at a consistent 30 FPS, the docked version of Dark Souls on Switch displays at 1080p, with the handheld mode set to 720p (the same resolution as the original game). Aside from the drop in resolution, general frame-rate between docked and handheld is largely consistent, which is great when swapping between the two modes during a session.

If you're used to Dark Souls Remastered running at 60 FPS on the other platforms, the Switch version will take some time adjusting to. In addition to some fairly short draw-distances on environmental details, the audio quality sounds far more subdued and quiet compared to other releases. While this doesn't happen often--and most times isn't that noticeable--it can create odd moments where some sound effects get drowned out by others, or when there's a slight delay in hearing a sound effect. Moreover, playing in docked mode with the Joy-Cons can often induce some lag with the camera controls, which can be a dire issue during careful platforming or an intense combat encounter. Fortunately, the Day One patch does work to address these issues to success, but some of the technical hiccups still linger.

Despite these rough edges, Dark Souls on Switch is an impressive port that manages to keep the Souls experience intact for its new platform. In a surprisingly neat feature, it's possible to pause the game when playing in the offline mode by backing out to the Home menu or setting the system to sleep. If you're planning to take Dark Souls mobile, then you'll more than likely make use of the offline mode often, and the Switch feels much more suited to.

To properly put this version through its paces, we journeyed to one of Dark Souls' most notorious levels, which frustrated and unnerved many players upon its original release. Blighttown, the derelict shanty town full of diseased creatures, was a nerve-wracking descent into a grotesque atmosphere filled with narrow walkways and an infamously unstable frame-rate. Many years later, it's still among one of the most game's most memorable and feared areas. The Switch version is fortunately able to keep a stable 30 FPS throughout, which includes the depths of Blighttown.

While there are noticeable dips during some encounters, particularly during bosses and set-pieces that have lots of action, the Switch handles the true Dark Souls experience quite well. The most notable success that Dark Souls Remastered has on the Switch--aside from the sheer fact that it runs properly on the hardware--is how it can feel like more of an involved journey. This is mostly due to how it works in handheld mode, allowing you to play Dark Souls on the go. As a returning player, it often felt like I was bundling up with an engrossing book, voraciously exploring and unearthing the game's many locations.

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In an interesting way, playing in handheld mode can make for a more personal experience with Dark Souls, which is something that's entirely exclusive to the Switch release. While the portability feature of the console can often feel overstated for other games, it truly does amplify the core of what Dark Souls is all about. Over the course of your personal story in-game--which is on a road paved by defeat, small victories, and occasional humiliation--you'll eventually come to a major win, making the challenging journey feel worthwhile.

While Dark Souls Remastered on Switch possesses some odd quirks and isn't as technically impressive as its current-gen counterparts, it still retains the heart of what the original game is all about. To this day, Dark Souls remains a watershed moment for the action-RPG genre. Getting to re-experience many of the game's most nerve-wracking and iconic moments can be satisfying in its own right, but coupled with the Switch's flexible playstyle, this equally haunting and triumphant game becomes an even more involved journey.

Posted on 20 October 2018 | 12:30 am

Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review - Blackout, Multiplayer, Zombies

As a continuation of the Black Ops subseries, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 both benefits from and is limited by its past. All three of its major modes--multiplayer, Zombies, and the new battle royale mode Blackout--pull from and build upon previous games. Multiplayer is largely successful in its mix of old and new, while Zombies struggles more with dated elements. Blackout, though, strikes an excellent balance, putting a clever Call of Duty spin on a genre entirely new to the series.

While Black Ops 4 doesn't have a traditional single-player campaign, it does have a helpful set of character-focused tutorial missions. Called Specialist HQ, it introduces you to each of the 10 multiplayer Specialists one by one, taking you through their unique abilities and a practice multiplayer match. It does have a bit of a story and some gorgeous (and gory) cutscenes threading each mission together, but it's all in service of getting you acquainted with the new Specialist mechanics--which is well worth the three or so hours it takes, since some of those mechanics appear in Blackout as well. One mission even weaves in a bit of general Zombies training, an unexpected but welcome touch that helps make the largely separate modes feel a little more cohesive.

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Multiplayer

Multiplayer is the most straightforward of the modes, and Black Ops 4 attempts to be more tactical than previous entries. The wall-running and thrust-jumping of Black Ops 3 is gone, replaced with weighty, grounded movement, and healing is now manual and on a cooldown timer. The combination forces you to be more thoughtful about your positioning, since you can't just jet and dodge enemy fire until your health regenerates--you need to make sure you have adequate cover and time to heal yourself in your immediate vicinity. This encourages a slightly slower, more cautious pace on an individual level, and it's refreshing to play it smart instead of just fast. But time-to-kill is still low and respawning still near-instant, ensuring that matches don't stagnate.

The more tactical feel extends to the Specialists, which build upon those introduced in Black Ops 3. Each has a unique weapon and equipment with a specific combat focus, like area control or high damage output. Each Specialist's weapon is tied to a longer cooldown and functions as a superpowered attack (or defensive ability, in some cases), while their equipment varies from a special grenade to trip mines and other gear with a clear strategic purpose. This includes roles other than offensive ones--there's even a pseudo-healer Specialist, Crash--and it's a change that gives multiplayer more variety.

Certain Specialists and strategies are more useful in some game types than others, though. Area control is best for objective-based modes like Domination, for example, and far less effective in the more scattered Team Deathmatch. Generally, your choice of Specialist and your team's composition won't matter in any mode if you aren't skilled in basic shooting and positioning, even if you're in a more defensive or supporting role. This means you can play selfishly and still emerge victorious, which works well for those of us who often solo queue and would rather not risk trying to communicate with randoms. But it can also make playing support-focused Specialists less rewarding if you aren't working as a team, since your efforts are useless if your teammates don't take advantage of them. It's a surprisingly good balance overall, though, giving you the flexibility to be only as tactical as you want or are able to be and enjoy the match regardless.

The map design, too, facilitates that flexibility. Each map has areas perfect for different Specialists to take advantage of, like blind corners where Nomad's trip mines can take enemies by surprise or high ceilings where Recon can shoot and hide his Sensor Dart that reveals enemies on your radar. But the long and narrow three-lane structure each map is built on is a strong foundation for more traditional shooting as well, with both long sightlines good for sniper and tactical rifles and tight spaces for close-range automatic weapons.

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The Specialist strategies are best showcased in the new Control, an objective-based mode in which each team, one attacking and one defending, shares 25 lives. You win by either exhausting all of the enemy team's lives or gaining or maintaining control of the two objectives. A defensive Specialist like Torque, who has Razor Wire perfect for placement under windows and a Barricade "weapon" for extra cover, is a great option if you're trying to hold an objective, for example. An offensive Specialist, on the other hand, can aim to wipe out the enemy team.

Zombies

Black Ops 4's Zombies is as broad as it is deep, with two separate storylines across three maps (or four if you have the Black Ops pass included in the game's special editions). The first two, IX and Voyage of Despair, are part of the brand-new Chaos story, while Blood of the Dead and Classified round out the selection of maps to make up the returning Aether story. All of them follow the familiar Zombies formula--fighting waves of the undead, saving money to access better weapons and new areas, and uncovering wacky secrets and puzzles along the way--but each has its own quirks that take time and effort to discover.

The Chaos maps are strong aesthetically, with rich level design and clever puzzles to match--draining water that has seeped into the Titanic's depths so you don't drown while searching for other secrets, for example. Like previous Zombies maps, a lot of the fun comes from figuring out how the map ticks while also trying not to die, and both IX and Voyage of Despair have the complex layouts that lend themselves to thorough yet hectic exploration. Voyage is a personal favorite, with narrow, creepy hallways and presumably drowned zombies that have water gushing from their heads.

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On the Aether side, Blood of the Dead is based on Black Ops 2's Mob of the Dead, while Classified is a reimagination of Black Ops' Five. Although they're definitely familiar, there are still surprises to entertain returning players--some puzzles don't unlock what you expect them to unlock, for example. However, the Ultimus crew hasn't aged particularly well, even considering that each of them is stereotyped to the extreme. The jokes just don't land anymore, especially Takeo's overdone Japanese accent where Ls are replaced with Rs at every opportunity. In Blood of the Dead it's distracting, but in Classified, lines about the Emperor and eating sushi are just plain offensive. You'll also hear these same lines every time you start a new run, which doesn't help.

On top of the already hefty amount of Zombies content, Black Ops 4 introduces a new mode of fighting the undead, Rush. It's a much faster-paced version of Zombies where you don't have to do any thinking or puzzle-solving; you're just there to kill them horde-style. There's no money, so you don't need to save up to buy a weapon or unlock a door. You're instead told which area will have the next Rush wave, and you're directed from room to room as you go. It's too intense to be a tutorial, per se, but it's a great way to familiarize yourself with the map, test weapons, and plan where to go next if you get stuck in Classic mode.

Blackout

The third and most exciting of Black Ops 4's three main sections is, of course, Blackout. Like other battle royale games, Call of Duty's take puts 100 players on one map with the goal of being the last person or squad standing, and a collapsing circle of death forces you in closer and closer proximity. It's unlike anything Call of Duty has done before, and slight alterations to its mechanics, like the addition of bullet drop on some weapons, help it adapt to the very different gameplay style.

Brilliantly, experience in both multiplayer and Zombies benefits you in Blackout. Perks and Specialist equipment can be looted during a match, and knowing how to both use and counter them can give you an advantage. There are also zombie-infested areas that offer powerful loot at the risk of attracting human players to your position, and that PvE twist in particular helps distinguish Blackout from the likes of PUBG. A successful Blackout round can last over 20 minutes, so if you're impatient or more used to Call of Duty's shorter multiplayer formats, seeking out zombies and causing a ruckus mid-match is a great way to see more action.

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The map itself is also distinctly Call of Duty, filled with references to previous games, including the fan favorite Nuketown. Vibrant and varied design makes each region stand out from the next, and the map as a whole is easy to navigate as a result. That in turn facilitates the strategic movement and positioning necessary to succeed; it's easy to pivot if a lot of other people are nearby, for example, if you know where you are in relation to the next-best loot area.

The combination of Call of Duty-specific mechanics with PUBG-style health, loot, and shooting systems is executed well, with quality-of-life improvements to UI--notably, you can quick-equip weapon attachments without going into your menu. The twists are balanced, too, and the Specialist equipment in particular doesn't make things feel unfair. Like in multiplayer, you can ignore anything you don't want to bother with, and survival ultimately comes down to your situational awareness, your skill with various weapons, and a bit of luck with looting and the circle. That makes victory feel earned and, as a result, immensely gratifying--Blackout definitely captures the tense, shaky excitement that makes battle royale such a popular genre.

Black Ops 4 isn't short on content, and its three main modes are substantial. Multiplayer introduces more tactical mechanics without forcing you into them, and it largely strikes a good balance. Zombies has multiple deep, secret-filled maps to explore, though its returning characters don't hold up and prove distracting. Finally, Blackout pushes Call of Duty in an entirely new direction, making use of aspects from both multiplayer and Zombies for a take on the battle royale genre that stands on its own. Sure, there isn't a traditional single-player campaign, but with the depth and breadth of what is there, Black Ops 4 doesn't need it.

Posted on 19 October 2018 | 5:10 pm

SoulCalibur 6 Review - Brave Sword, Braver Soul

What truly distinguishes SoulCalibur from its genre contemporaries is a pervading sense of adventure. It tells a grand tale of knights and ninjas, axe-wielding goliaths and pirate warriors, all struggling over mythical weapons of good and evil. It accents this with a rousing orchestral score and grandiose narrations about entwined destinies and inescapable fates. Sure, deep and rewarding mechanics are at the heart of every good fighting game--and SoulCalibur VI certainly has that--but for this series, adventure has always been the soul.

That spirit of adventure is most evident in SoulCalibur VI's two story modes. Libra of Souls is the meatier of the two and takes inspiration from SoulCalibur II's beloved Weapon Master Mode. It's part fighting game, part role-playing game, part Dungeons & Dragons campaign; you create and customize your own unique fighter using options that, while serviceable, aren't nearly as robust as the ones in Bandai Namco's other fighter, Tekken 7. From there you embark on a journey that will take you across the world, and along the way you'll cross paths--and swords--with both named characters and generically named bit-parters.

Libra of Souls tells its story primarily through text, but it's all surprisingly engaging, with dialogue and descriptions setting the stage for the inevitable fight and giving even its throwaway opponents a bit of flavour. The story's conceit for making you travel around the world is that you're "malfested" with an evil energy and must absorb Astral Fissures to stay alive. Although you're ushered between main quest missions, various side-quests pop up around you, with NPCs asking for a hand solving their problems. Naturally, the solution each time is a sword-swinging contest, but the game does a valiant job of world building along the way to give texture to its fantasy universe. You'll learn that Ceylon is a major producer of cinnamon, which is favoured by royalty and thus very precious, and that hamlets are being decimated by a rampaging Azure Knight with a thirst for souls. You'll meet a would-be entrepreneur who, while affable, is mostly after handouts; a weaponsmith who is looking to impress the royal family to win a contract; and a priestess who doubts her abilities, among others.

Completing these missions rewards you with experience that levels you up, and this is where the RPG hooks are strongest. As you grow, you'll be able to use stronger weapons that have different visual styles and properties. Enemies also become hardier and, on top of that, special battle conditions spice up fights. These may make one type of attack more effective while decreasing the strength of others, thus forcing you to diversify your skillset within the battle system. Another wrinkle to the RPG mechanics is the ability to select a food item to take into battle. These bestow bonuses such as increased counter damage, a boost to health at the start of a new round, or extra experience for a win, to name a few. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you can visit the Mercenaries Guild and hire a fighter, outfit them with a weapon and food, then send them into battle. At best the AI will secure a victory; at worst they’ll knock off some health from the enemy before you step in.

There are also little touches in Libra of Souls that reinforce the idea that you're a wandering warrior on an epic journey. One of them is an indicator at the top of the world map that ticks down the years as you progress, establishing a passage of time as you bounce between locations and fights in rapid succession. Another is the decision-making moments, some of which will simply dictate how you act towards a character, while others will weigh your soul towards good or evil, impact the story, and decide how the ending battle plays out. The eventual consequence of your actions is small, but it's a neat way to give you a tiny bit of authorship in the story.

The main issue with Libra of Souls is the ratio of storytelling to actual gameplay. The mode is very text-heavy, which would be less of a problem if its battles weren't so quick. In the hands of a capable fighting game player, many enemies can be dispatched within as little as 10 seconds, which means time spent in Libra of Souls is heavily skewed toward reading over fighting. And although the loading screens before and after battles are quite short, they can become increasingly tedious. The mode is also lacking in variety, so beyond the occasional battle condition, it does very little to keep you on your toes. For the most part, applying an aggressive strategy will see you emerge victorious.

The second mode, Soul Chronicles, is a more typical take on a fighting game story but is still expansive and has an interesting approach to laying out its narrative. It features a main story that chronicles what happens with the legendary Soul Edge but supplements this with 19 character-specific campaigns, drilling down on what they're doing while the broader story takes place. Although they're heavily reliant on static artwork, they're fully voiced and the artwork itself has an eye-catching, sketch-like style. There's a microcosm of Libra of Souls' issues here too, though, as battles can be over in the blink of an eye, and that means more hitting buttons to advance text.

Nevertheless, Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicle make for a satisfying single-player offering, with the former lasting upwards of eight hours and the latter taking around four. Idiosyncrasies aside, both give you plenty to do and provide a comprehensive, engrossing story throughout. By the time it's over, you'll have travelled the world, met a variety of colorful characters, and fought all manner of strange creatures. Quite the adventure.

SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation ... you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time

The beauty of SoulCalibur's gameplay is its simplicity, and in that respect SoulCalibur VI is a bit like rock-paper-scissors. At its most superficial, the rules of engagement are simple and the pace of battles means decision-making is based on instinct as much as considered tactics and being reactive. Admittedly, the same can be said of most fighting games, but unlike them SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation to do this; you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time. Although there are complicated systems and techniques to consider, an inability to interact with them doesn't loom over you. Before long vertical attacks will reveal themselves as powerful but slow, you'll quickly realise that horizontal attacks interrupt sidesteps and are a safe way to apply pressure, and kicks are a nice balance of the two but with limited range. It takes little time to internalize those fundamentals, and so their intricacies become apparent quicker than in most fighting games. Throw in blocking and movement, both of which are intuitive, and the pick-up-and-play factor becomes a key strength of SoulCalibur VI.

The surface simplicity belies more complex systems beneath, and SoulCalibur VI is mechanically dense. It layers systems from throughout the series on top of each other so even veterans will need to examine the individual pieces and figure out how they fit together. Although each character has a relatively limited range of attacks, the eight-way run movement lets you modify them. Attacks also land at different heights--high, mid, and low--and in turn blocking becomes a three-tiered system. More confident players can react to an attack by executing a last-second Guard Impact to repel and leave their opponent open, but a staggered player can retaliate with a Reversal Impact--a reversal reversal.

From there it only gets more complicated. Reversal Edge is a special stance that will counter incoming attacks at any height. It's executed with a single button and the longer it's held the more attacks it can absorb. This makes defending against an onslaught of attacks really easy, but the ease of execution means it also steps on the toes of the more skill-based Guard Impact. Reversal Edge seems to be aimed at casual players as, while a successful Guard Impact places the initiator in a more advantageous position, Reversal Edge establishes a neutral playfield by initiating a clash. Here the action slows, the camera swoops in close, and the two fighters effectively bet on what the other player will do and counter it. This is a useful way to create some breathing room when being smothered, but the guessing game leads to a feeling of randomness that can be frustrating. The workaround here is to land an unblockable break attack to stop a Reversal Edge.

Beyond that there are Critical Edges, which are the game's equivalent of super moves. These are governed by the Soul Gauge, which is built up by attacking, defending, and taking damage. Once one level is attained, it can be spent on executing an incredibly powerful and outlandish cinematic attack. A Soul Gauge can also be spent on a Soul Charge, a comeback state of sorts that opens a separate set of moves up for a character to use, powers up normal attacks, and makes them cause damage to blocking opponents for a brief period.

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Those are just a few of the systems in SoulCalibur VI, so for those that want to become students of the game, it offers plenty to learn. However, at times it can also feel needlessly complex. This is likely a symptom of creating a collection of systems that give the hardcore fighting game players the depth they crave while also enabling casual players to stand their ground against them. On paper that might seem like a good approach, but the end result is a construction that is at odds with itself, as if built out of both K-Nex and Lego--the simpler parts undermine the complex ones, and although it works, it's inelegant. A good player with an understanding of all the systems will almost always triumph over someone only making use of the basic ones, so the biggest issue this superfluousness presents is that it makes the path from casual to expert a little less appealing to walk. That complexity is overwhelming when it doesn't need to be, and if there are simpler and easier options there's less incentive to dig beneath the surface.

As with most fighting games, it'll be some time before overly powerful characters or dubious strategies emerge online, if at all. However, from a network perspective SoulCalibur VI's online modes are stable. We played a number of matches online in ranked and casual and had no trouble finding other players, connecting, and having smooth fights. In casual mode, you can search for a room based on customizable parameters such as skill level, round count, region, and language. You can also specify if custom characters are allowed. Alternatively, you can establish your own room and invite others to join or have it open to anyone.

In ranked mode you select your character and style from a pop-up menu, forgoing the need to go into the game's normal selection screen. There's also the option to pick connection status, region, and preferred starting side, for those that want it. If you're looking to learn and refine your skills, the replay channel is handy for rewatching your own saved matches, as well as finding recent replays from the community to favorite and watch. A nice touch is the ability to see who won the match, so if you want to see how to play a character successfully it's easy to do so. Overall, SoulCalibur VI's online suite is fairly no-frills, sticking to the basics but doing them well.

SoulCalibur VI is a fighting game that's easy to recommend. Like all the best titles in the genre, it has a low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling. For those looking to get in a few games with friends it's welcoming and immediately enjoyable. For those committed to ploughing the depths of its systems to get tournament ready, it has plenty to unpack and understand. Better still, those that want to play alone will find SoulCalibur VI has some of the most substantial single-player content in any fighting game today.

Posted on 19 October 2018 | 5:10 pm

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales Review - Queen Of Cards

With the Witcher trilogy, developer CD Projekt Red established that it's capable of making compelling role-playing games with tough decisions, hearty combat, and engrossing lore. In Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, all but one of these aspects has persisted. This prequel is as captivating narratively as some of the Witcher series' best tales, filled with gut-wrenching decisions that have far-reaching consequences. The only difference is that instead of fighting with a sword, you battle with cards. Thronebreaker is an intelligent spin on the collectible card game Gwent and manages to transform its simple premise into an enthralling tale of family, loyalty, and hardship.

You play as Queen Meve, ruler of the lands known as Lyria and Rivia, on the eve of the great Nilfgaardian invasion. These ruthless imperials sweep across the land like a plague, decimating villages and their citizens and using underhanded tactics to wrestle control of kingdoms away from their rulers. Meve and her forces, returning home after another lengthy war, get caught in the middle of the invasion. With traitors around every corner and spies lurking in the shadows, you'll have to make difficult decisions about who to let into your party and who to cut ties with permanently as you rally together a guerrilla army to snuff out the Nilfgaardian invasion and rally support for a full-blown counterattack.

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Thronebreaker's tale involves an entirely new cast of characters (with some notable cameos here and there) which is fully voiced throughout the 25-hour campaign. The interplay between Queen Meve and her trusted subjects is notably strong, with exceptional writing bringing each character's motivations and principles to life. Meve isn't as blank a slate for you to project upon as Geralt is, but Thronebreaker gives you room to work in her decision-making. The choices you make are painted with the same grey brush that The Witcher is known for, with no one choice promising a better outcome than the rest. Leading a dwindling army into battles with impossible odds puts an incredible amount of responsibly on your shoulders, and choosing when to be empathetic and when to be ruthless has some fascinating repercussions--both immediately and far further into the story.

You command Meve through multiple large open areas, each bearing a distinctive visual aesthetic and characters to interact with. These areas look like pages ripped from a concept art book, with stunning watercolors and brush strokes bringing sun-kissed pastures and bubbling swamps to life with impressive detail. The cel-shading on Meve and supporting characters helps define them against the background while giving them all distinctive appearances, but it can be slightly jarring when brought into focus during serious conversations. Thronebreaker is a tour around some of The Witcher's most engrossing landscapes, and it's a treat to see them from a different view.

Each area plays host to the many story battles you'll need to undertake to progress, but also numerous side missions and collectible content. Side quests can be as simple as making decisions to solve petty quarrels or as involved as hunting down dragons in dark caverns at the request of terrified villagers. Each quest has a story to tell, which can either affect the mood of your troops, bestow you with important rewards such as gold and wood, or introduce new special characters into your ranks. Skipping them can have consequences too, with characters reacting to the people you help and the bounties you choose to take. It makes Thronebreaker's world feel incredibly reactive to your choices, compelling you to take care with how you handle each of them.

You'll also need to gather resources in the vein of gold, wood, and requisitioned troops to better establish your fighting force. Constructing new attachments for your base camp can help you grow your deck of Gwent cards with new characters and abilities, ranging from simple Lyrian forces to noble dwarves and stealthy elves. Thronebreaker doesn't make you feel the need to scour each corner of the map for resources, instead giving you more than enough on the critical path alone. But seeing your small army grow with each passing area is rewarding, as are the effects it has on your abilities to fight with your chosen cards.

Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets.

Units have a variety of abilities that can be triggered in a number of ways, many of which can be chained up with other units to create devastating combos during a single turn. Since Gwent isn't just about dolling out damage and more about field control, striking a balance between cards that damage your opponent and ones more adept at raising your personal score is paramount. Thronebreaker's shifting priorities in combat prevent the flurry of battles from wearing thin, with only a few resting on the basic rules of Gwent alone. Some standout fights had me chipping away at individual cards that made up the body of a dragon, with each piece having its own attributes that either damaged my cards or healed others. Thronebreaker contextualizes the rules of each of its encounters to fit the purpose of the story in clever ways. This makes playing Gwent consistently rewarding and helps avoid the potentially deflating transition from a rousing ride into battle to a simple game of cards on a table.

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Playing Gwent in Thronebreaker can often feel like a reintroduction to the game with its new rules and stipulations, and that comes with the cost of some quests that feel too easy. On the default difficulty, most core quests won't trouble you enough to make meaningful decisions about the composition of your deck, which saps some life out of the overarching metagame of having to use resources to acquire better cards. Optional puzzle encounters make up for this though, giving you a specific deck to work with in uniquely tailored challenges. These encounters are the best learning tools Thronebreaker has to offer, exposing you to complex card combinations as a requirement to win. Often these challenges lead to card unlocks for Gwent's online component, so you're encouraged to take them up as often as they present themselves.

Don't be tricked into thinking Thronebreaker is simply a lengthy tutorial for what is to come when Gwent opens its multiplayer. Its tale is mandatory if you're looking for more Witcher lore to chew on and manages to engage you with a strong cast of well-written characters and a suitably dark plot that challenges your morals every chance it can. Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets. Gwent was a side attraction in The Witcher 3, but through Thronebreaker, it's blossomed into something new that stands on its own as a proud member of the Witcher family.


Posted on 18 October 2018 | 3:00 pm

Reigns: Game Of Thrones Review: Swipe Wight

After nearly a decade, the end of the Game of Thrones TV show is in sight. Fortunately, fans of the series have new things to look forward to, but even for those with faith in George RR Martin, the prospect of a new Song of Ice and Fire novel looks increasingly unlikely. Similarly, what the future holds for video game adaptations of the franchise is unclear. Telltale is all but dead, and for a series that has proven to be such a phenomenal success in other mediums, it's surprising that there haven't been more game adaptations. Reigns: Game of Thrones may not be the Elder Scrolls-style RPG you're hoping for, but it does nonetheless offer a welcome use of the license--even if it does occasionally stumble with repetition.

Reigns: GoT has you take on the role of king or queen of Westeros. You're faced with a series of situations, and you respond to each card that pops up with a binary choice by swiping left or right. Your decisions impact four different meters you must constantly balance: military, religion, citizens, and money. It sounds simple, but you have to prevent all of these meters not just from emptying, but also from filling all the way up. Becoming overwhelmingly popular with the people sounds great, but it's a one-way ticket to losing your throne thanks to jealous lords who launch a coup. You're able to preview the impact of any decision, but you're only told which meters will be affected and whether it'll be a minor and major effect, not whether it will increase or decrease.

This results in a certain amount of guesswork when you're initially presented with any scenario, which can lead to a swift death--I've had runs end with my very first swipe. In time you'll develop an understanding for how to approach situations, and the challenge comes in being prepared for anything. You're never sure what opportunity or obstacle lies around the next corner, and deftly handling whatever is thrown at you is the key to success.

As is appropriate for Game of Thrones, no character is untouchable, and that's true for each of the rulers you can play as. Like in the previous Reigns games, your death is the very likely outcome of any run, but it comes in many forms, and discovering them all (whether it's contracting greyscale, getting lost in the tunnels of the Red Keep, or being burned to death by wildfire) is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. It's a rarity that death is a legitimately enjoyable moment in a game, but that's undoubtedly the case here.

That's thanks in large part to the excellent writing. Despite each card consisting of a few sentences at most, characters are colorful, distinct, and full of personality. And although the subject matter is often serious, and the world brutal, the game manages to maintain an air of lightheartedness throughout. Some part of that is due to the apparent decision to leave out the sexual assault and rape that is a common element of Martin's novels and the TV show. The game is better off by not trivializing these things by having you respond to them with a Tinder-style swipe, and their absence makes you feel no less like you're inhabiting the world of the books and show.

The use of well-established characters is thankfully not heavily reliant on quotes or wink-wink references to the show, like you might expect. While it makes sense that your own ruler's personality is dictated by your choices, there are the occasional moments where characters feel less like themselves and more like generic individuals who share the name and look of their book/show counterparts, but these instances are few and far between.

Reigns: GoT embraces its non-canonical status, building loosely on the state of the world from Seasons 6 and 7 and allowing it to expand in many different directions. You're able to make decisions that run contradictory to what we know about these characters; there's nothing stopping you from making Cersei into a benevolent leader or Jon Snow into a materialistic jerk. You will face resistance where you'd expect; Winterfell is not inclined to take kindly to Cersei's attempts at diplomacy. This helps to deepen the sense that you are occupying this world, and not one that just happens to have characters whose names you recognize.

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The game is well suited to mobile, where you can quickly knock out a brief run. It's designed to be replayed over and over as you take different paths and try different rulers and approaches. In time, you recognize patterns and scenarios that emerge repeatedly, and playing begins to feel like exploring an elaborate maze. You can't save your progress during any run, so you're unable to do the old choose-your-adventure book trick of peeking ahead to see if you're making the "wrong" choice. While there were times that I wished I could place a bookmark I could return to in order to see how differently things could have played out, the absence of such a feature provides a weight to each of your decisions. You'll just have to live (or, well, die) with your decisions, whether or not you like the outcome.

As with discovering the many deaths that await you, much of the fun comes from finding every corner of the maze, rather than successfully navigating your way out of it. The threat of the White Walkers is constantly looming in the background, and some runs do prove to be repetitive and dull, offering nothing new to see or do. But more often, you'll be faced with some well-written scenario to see through, be it a war with Dorne, the threat of the Greyjoys, or experiments with wildfire. While this could have felt directionless, vaguely described optional objectives--win a tavern brawl, make Dothraki pie, and so on--provide you with a loose path to pursue as you seek to check everything off your list.

While the Game of Thrones license is the headlining feature, there are some advancements here that provide welcome variety and iterate on the formula established in Reigns and Reigns: Her Majesty. You'll periodically have the opportunity to pick from a handful of branches of a decision tree (though these still lead to swipe left or right choices). Slightly more elaborate sequences have you making a series of decisions that, rather than directly affect your four reputation meters, determine whether you successfully complete a long trip or win a battle. In the latter case, you'll have to make tactical decisions about which of your forces to use against specific opponents. StarCraft this is not, but these sequences help to break up the action and make these moments feel like the significant events that they should.

Reigns: GoT is by no means perfect. It doesn't lend itself to long play sessions thanks to the potential for repetition, which can make the action feel tedious. But that's ultimately a minor quibble for what's a genuinely fun experience: a choose-your-own adventure where you're faced with non-stop decisions and a seemingly endless combination of ways for things to play out.

Posted on 18 October 2018 | 1:00 pm

Armello Review - Nintendo Switch Update

[Editor's Note: We have updated this review to reflect our experiences with Armello's Nintendo Switch version]

Armello's hybrid of tactics, dice-rolling, and political intrigue has aged better than expected in the three years since its release, and on Nintendo Switch, the game is almost as formidable as it is on PC. Its charming blend of animal kingdom hijinks and turn-based strategy gameplay has yet to be replicated by a newer, flashier title; Armello has definitely held up well, and its uniqueness is undeniable. However, there are a few major differences between PC version and Switch releases, and not all of them are positive.

The most important distinction is the fact that the Switch version includes all of Armello's DLC content. The Complete Edition of the game includes a bunch of morally-grey heroes, seasonal effects, and a whole new clan to contend with. While the base game has a fair amount of material to keep you occupied, a criticism of the launch content was that particular victory styles were incentivized over others. At their core, the DLC packs attempt to address that by expanding your potential champion pool with heroes that operate very differently from the original ones in the base game.

Luckily, the champion pool increase is more than just a numbers game. The Usurpers DLC in particular has heroes which are brimming with devilish personality, along with playstyles that revolve around more than the just original victory avenues of skirmishing and keeping a death grip on the King's coffers. The Bandit Clan DLC adds around 50 new quests specific to this charismatic new faction, along with a thematically-appropriate follower that gives risk-taking players a second chance when taking up arms against their competition. The other DLC packs focus on mostly aesthetic and minor upgrades to dice variety, but they're still notable improvements on the range of material that was initially available.

The unfortunate change to the Switch version is the performance. Unlike the DLC additions that are, on the balance of things, a net positive, Armello doesn't run as nicely on Nintendo's console as it does on other platforms. It's not the sort of frame rate drop that makes the game unplayable by any means, but there's a clear disruption in the smoothness and timeliness of actions and animations that play out on the screen when you're in-game. This isn't something that you can attribute to online connection troubles either; some graphical degradation was experienced in playing against the AI in the Prologue segments, which in itself contained condensed elements of the game's mechanics. If you can put that to one side, then Armello's unique blend of strategy makes it a worthy pick-up on Switch. -- Ginny Woo, 10/16/2018

[Original review text follows below]

When you don't have three friends and some reasonably good beer to keep you engaged, a board game--especially a virtual recreation of one--has to work a lot harder to hold your attention. Armello accomplishes this and then some, and while it could use some fine tuning, it remains one of the best virtual board game experiences available.

At first glance, Armello can feel like a tangle of things--dice and cards and boards and coins and stats--but the quick four-part prologue does a good job of making sense of these pieces. Your primary actions include moving a character around the board to complete quests and avoid hazards. There are eight playable characters, and each character has different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities in addition to items they can equip to skew their stats in a slightly different direction. They also each have great-looking combat animations. Ever wish Disney's Robin Hood had 40% more bears punching each other senseless? Well, this game is for you!

As if you can't tell Brun means business, in a world full of anthropomorphized animals, he's wearingsomeone's head as a belt buckle.
As if you can't tell Brun means business, in a world full of anthropomorphized animals, he's wearingsomeone's head as a belt buckle.

To win in Armello, you have to either kill the king or have the highest prestige when the monarch dies due to a disease called the rot. Every full day--one turn for day and one turn for night--the King's health dwindles lower while his rot creeps higher, so no matter how things shake out, there are a finite number of turns that can be taken before the King will keel over on his own. It's also possible to defeat the King in combat, either by gathering four spirit stones from quests or tiles, or gaining a higher rot level than him. If a would-be assassin fails, the victory will automatically be handed to the prestige leader. Unless you're playing against clever friends, a prestige victory is almost always the easiest way to win. This can make the game feel unbalanced, especially when playing against AI opponents that frequently make ill-advised assassination attempts. That said, if you can resist the siren song of an easy victory or have other players wanting to spoil your plans, the varied win conditions provide enough variety to accommodate different play styles and keep things spicy through multiple sessions of playing with friends.

You also have a hand of cards--which are as well-animated as the characters themselves--that can be anything from equippable items and followers to spells and tricks that can be applied to yourself, other actors on the board, or specific tiles. Imagine if you could slam your Hearthstone deck down on a Clue board and swarm Professor Plum with Murlocs, and you have an accurate idea of just how neat this is in practice. Cards all have different costs to play, and crucially, they can be played regardless of whose turn it is. This allows for some tense moments and sharp twists in matches with other human players. On the other hand, when it comes to the A.I. opponents, the game tends to jump around a bit too fast to take full advantage of that ability unless you're particularly quick on the draw.

Long live the king!
Long live the king!
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What Armello suffers from most is a lack of customization options, something it could have stood to learn from more-traditional strategy games. There's no way to define whether you want a quick or a long game, A.I. skill levels are static, and when you're playing with friends, you're bound to a move timer whether you like it or not. Graphics controls are also somewhat limited, which means that you won't be able to turn off the haze of clouds in the sky, which would be dlightful if you didn't have to look down through them when you zoom out to see the full board.

Armello picks and chooses a variety of elements from board, card, 4X, and role-playing games without demanding either a familiarity with or a fondness for any genre. It also leaves a lot of room to engage as deeply as you want with the game's guts without feeling like you're floundering if you don't. Whether you're bumbling your way to the top or playing all your cards right, Armello makes regicide ridiculously entertaining.

Posted on 16 October 2018 | 12:01 am

Starlink: Battle for Atlas Review - Endless Space

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a game about flying through space, exploring new planets, and shooting a lot of aliens. Set in a seamless open-world galaxy, it sees you pushing back occupying forces by battling enemies, setting up outposts, and completing simple tasks set by your allies. For better and worse, it's a distinctly Ubisoft game, from the huge spaces (seven separate planets and the vast depths of space that separate them) to the maps overloaded with activities. But thankfully, Starlink is not quite so full that it feels bloated--just full enough so that there's always something for you to be working towards.

Starlink is also Ubisoft's entry into the toys-to-life market--you're able to buy physical packs of pilots, weapons, and ships, all of which are interchangeable and have their own unique attributes and abilities. Constructing and attaching these models to your controller using a specialized mounting device will give you access to those characters and tools in-game, and while swapping between all these components isn't necessary, doing so brings distinct advantages.

Starlink's combat is fun thanks to simple controls and the two weapon system--different enemies are weak against or impervious to different weapon types, and swapping the two weapons mounted on your ship will change your methods of attack and the kinds of elemental combos you can perform. Using a stasis missile on an enemy so that they float helplessly in mid-air, then setting them alight with a flaming minigun, never gets old. Every weapon can be leveled up individually and augmented with mods that you collect, so by the end of the game, your most-used guns will likely be able to absolutely rip through certain enemies, provided you have the foresight to equip them.

When you're grounded on a planet, you'll be doing a lot of strafing and aiming for big glowing weak points, whereas fights in space are more freewheeling, with dogfights often pitting you against swarms of enemy fighters. These feel like all-range mode battles from Star Fox, and swinging around to land a precision assault on an enemy (often thanks to the game's rather generous auto-aim) is satisfying every time. The controls for each ship are the same, but there are minor differences between them; a light ship is better for maneuvering through a delicate situation on the ground, for instance, while a heavier ship can take more hits during battles.

Like weapons, each pilot has their own upgrade tree and unique special ability, and they even get their own unique script during missions, which is a great touch. There are only a few big story-driven missions, and in the back half of the game, you're given some freedom as to how you go about weakening the enemy forces. There's an order of operations in each sector of space--clear out mining sites guarded by enemies to weaken 'Primes,' which are big robot monsters on each planet. Killing Primes on planets that are near each other will weaken a related Dreadnaught, a giant spaceship that will, in turn, produce more Primes if you don't take it out too.

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The one drawback to this structure, though, is that you're essentially taking on the same kinds of fights with occasional difficulty spikes. Taking out the game's three Dreadnaughts will make the final boss easier, and you can theoretically take on a Dreadnaught at its maximum strength regardless of how under-leveled you are. It's repetitive, but you also get a good sense of your progression, and the feedback loop of loot and rewards hits a good balance where you rarely feel like you're stuck grinding. The battles might repeat a lot, but they're consistently entertaining, and figuring out the best way to take down a huge enemy with the tools you have on hand is a satisfying challenge. The Dreadnaughts are particularly fun to take down--every time you take out one of their mounted guns a swarm of enemy ships will attack, leading to the game’s most intense dogfighting, and each encounter ends with a Star Wars-inspired "fly into the center and destroy the core" sequence.

If you're playing on Nintendo Switch, you'll have access to Fox McCloud and his Arwing. He can call in one of the other members of Star Fox, complete with the Corneria theme from the original game, and if you're a fan it's very tempting to play as him the entire time. The Switch version consistently runs smoothly, although there's a visual trade-off. The planets are not particularly detailed, everything's a little fuzzier in handheld mode, and there's a lot of pop-in--it's weird to have an asteroid belt suddenly appear in front of you when you're flying towards a planet.

But the Star Fox fan service throughout the game is a great bonus, especially in the mini five-mission campaign in which the team hunts down long-time antagonist Wolf O'Donnell. Wolf is a much more interesting enemy than Andross, as it turns out, and while this campaign is short it feels true to the spirit of the series. Fox and his team get integrated into the rest of the game, too, popping up in cutscenes with the rest of the Starlink crew.

Unfortunately, the game's primary plot--which concerns a crew of adventurers trying to save their captured captain and take down the "Forgotten Legion" forces led by an alien named Grax--is much less exciting. Strangely, despite Battle For Atlas being the first and only existing game in the Starlink series, the script feels as though it's written for players who have a pre-existing relationship with these characters and their situation, meaning that there's not much in the way of pathos or catharsis to be found. Some of the characters are interesting, but even though the game is keen to throw lore at you there's little sense of who these characters are, what sort of universe they exist in, or even what their fundamental role is beyond needing to take down this enemy force.

Despite this, it's always clear what your overarching objectives are and how you need to work towards them. There's a lot that you can be doing at any given point--even in the vastness of outer space, there are wrecks to salvage gear from and enemy outposts to take down. Wrecks can be identified from their flashing beacons and usually contain loot, while outposts are added to your map as you chase outlaws from planets. Exploring the depths of space reveals plenty of neat loot and fun encounters and the thrill of taking off from one planet, seamlessly flying into space, and landing on another never gets old.

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But Starlink's proposition as a toys-to-life product is hampered somewhat by the comparative financial value of the digital alternative. The physical starter pack varies in content between consoles, but they each give you far less than both the starter and deluxe digital versions, which unlock multiple ships, pilots, and weapons from the get-go. If you get the physical starter pack and don't want to buy additional toys you can still finish the game, but you'll be at an enormous disadvantage.

Having multiple ships in Starlink essentially operates as having extra lives--if you get wrecked during a battle you can choose to either quit or replace the ship immediately. If you don't have a replacement, certain battles are going to be a real struggle, and progress doesn't carry over when you come back to them. It's easy to lose a ship, too, especially since your defensive options during fights are often limited--you can summon a shield or barrel roll, but both eat into your limited energy supply, which takes a while to recharge. The digital starter pack gives you four ships (five on Switch), which feels fairer and lets you worry less during big battles. Between ships and weapons (pilots are less vital), you'd have to buy quite a few toys if you wanted a varied and balanced experience.

The ship models themselves look great, though, and while switching loadouts via the menus is always going to be the more convenient option, physically swapping out the components will pause the game the until your ship is completely decked out again. Changing pilots will require you to remove the entire ship first, but that's only a minor pain--the only real impediment is being able to remember which weapon does what by sight, but their designs are distinctive enough that this isn't an issue once you get accustomed to it to them.

Starlink is an interesting and enjoyable open-world game, one that fully understands the appeal of exploring new planets and dogfighting in the cold depths of space. With a small fleet of ships at your disposal, it can be a lot of fun to progressively assault and weaken the Forgotten Legion's hold on the galaxy. It's just a shame that if you're interested in the physical models, you'll have to spend more to get the same experience as the digital version.

Posted on 15 October 2018 | 11:00 pm

Child of Light Review

There are times I want to be sad, when I'd rather be all alone, quietly thinking about my life, or hugging a loved one to forget about the day's trouble. Child of Light embraces that melancholy beautifully and its various elements cultivate a doleful mood. From the overgrown foliage threatening to overtake the neglected environments to the tired inhabitants wasting away their days, there's a somber tone that permeates this storybook adventure. I was struck by that desperation in the whimsical poetry of the dialogue; conversations are constructed with overtly meticulous rhymes that betray the bewilderment building below the surface. And the docile piano melody made my heart all the heavier. Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.

I wasn't so accepting of Child of Light at first. The delicate artistic style is so immediately inviting that I had imagined a world opening before me that I would want to exist in. That's because I had mistaken color for happiness. Child of Light is not about fleeting joy, and so, when the sorrowful tone endured as I ventured on, I struggled to find my bearings. I waited for a lightheartedness that never arrived, so I fought against the energy that Child of Light was putting forth. But as I pushed deeper inside of this dreamlike world, I stopped resisting and opened up to the game. Child of Light is difficult in ways that I hadn't expected, and is incredibly effective if you allow it to work its magic.

It's in the earliest moments that the game reveals its true nature. A story told through stained-glass imagery shows the protagonist Aurora's inseparable relationship with her father, and tells of how their bond was torn asunder. One night, she rested her head upon a pillow, and never awakened when a new day dawned. Her father, the once proud king, was beside himself with grief, choosing to spend his days awash in tears rather than care for his kingdom and the wants of his populace. He was a lost man. Lost, too, was Aurora, who awakened not in her own bed, but in a place she did not recognize. It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms. Her plight to fight for both her own freedom and her companions' is one we've seen before, though that doesn't detract from the feelings it conjures.

Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.

Aurora joins up with a jester who has lost touch with her brother, a rodent who craves monetary wealth, and a gnome whose people have been cursed with an avian disease. But it's a firefly who proves to be the steadiest friend. Igniculus floats alongside you as you explore the creaking trees and abandoned homes you drift past on your way to free this land from the misery that it's drowning in. Always with advice on his lips, he can also light the passageway through dark caves and collect treasure that your human hands can't wrest open.

Spiders are cast as villains, as they should be.
Spiders are cast as villains, as they should be.

When Aurora sets out into this foreign world--barefoot, weaponless, and utterly alone--she clambers upon rocky outcrops as she winds her way through labyrinthine caverns. Slowly but determinedly, Aurora uses ingenuity to scavenge for scraps of treasure, and I felt at one with the environment as I charted a course onward. After reaching her first destination, Aurora was imbued with flight, and the tactile pleasure of forging unknown paths vanished. Once airborne, you can no longer run and jump as you once could, instead floating dreamily through air thick with fog and rain. The kinetic freedom of flight rises and quickly falls away as you continually find your path barred. Thorns rein you in, waterfalls and gales push you away, and those restrictions echo the themes of imprisonment. You're not free; you're trapped and scared and desperate to return home, and those aerial barriers further those feelings.

Enjoy flight when you can. There are treasure chests and hidden passages for those with an inquisitive disposition, and when you're able to break free from the chains corralling you in place, the landscape is too beautiful to not admire. But such appreciation is fleeting. There are enemies lurking--creatures that should have no qualms about your presence cut you down if you drift too close to them. They patrol in the open, marching from side to side along high plateaus or hovering menacingly in dark caverns. You can avoid them if you wish--fly down another path or wait until they turn their backs on you--but Aurora is not one to walk away from a confrontation. She wields a sword almost too heavy for her to carry, and has her heart set only on her freedom, so she doesn't run away from the monsters that stand before her. She longs to fight, relishes in it, and her friends readily join her, eager to damage the foul beasts who roam about their home.

It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms.

It's in the combat that the sadness that permeates the rest of Child of Light is momentarily halted. The music loses its solemnity as it suddenly becomes fierce, and the characters forget their aching problems for a moment while they focus on the threats that stand before them. Wolves and boars growl their displeasure, flaming birds and ethereal horses bar your path, and you stare them down like only a true warrior can. Although your party balloons as you trudge deeper into this desperate land, only two can fight at one time, while the others swap in when their fists are needed and back out once their energy is spent. It's a frenetic system in which you're continually juggling your party, tapping a healer when you need a boost, matching elemental attacks against your shifty opponents, and finding ways for everyone to contribute.

The energy of these encounters carries a fast-paced excitement that's lacking from the rest of the adventure. That's not to downplay how affecting the quiet moments are, but rather to show how sharp the contrast is. When you're fighting, you're so invested in an immediate threat that you're no longer saddened by the dire world around you. And it's a freeing feeling that exists only because of how different it is from the rest of the adventure. Part of that rush comes from how smartly time is used. Though fights play out in a turn-based manner, you and your opponents race to perform attacks as quickly as you can. Cast haste to get a boost, or hover Igniculus over an enemy to slow it down. Interrupt an attack, and you can infuriate an enemy, cause it to retaliate with anger or cower from frustration. If you're inattentive, your hard work can blow up in your face, so you have to act with exactitude and think on your toes.

The night is dark and full of terrors.
The night is dark and full of terrors.

The challenge of these encounters is expertly balanced. Against tougher foes, I always felt out of my element. Would this be the fight where I finally met my end? I would scrape and claw, desperately casting spells while fending off the unceasing threat. My attacks would be interrupted, my characters infected by curses, and yet I pressed on. I would drown enemies in water, blind them with sunlight, and never relent for even a second. I never did lose a battle. Child of Light did a wonderful job of pushing me hard, forcing me to fight with speed and precision, without ever becoming overwhelming. When I won, I would pause for a few moments to take in what I had accomplished. It's a great feeling to come out on top. And though I would invariably level up from such victories, I wasn't drawn to better stats or new powers. It was winning that was infectious. It was embracing the moments of respite amid a sea of sorrow and despair.

Child of Light is a remarkable adventure. I wouldn't have thought that was true during the first couple of hours given that my expectations of what kind of game this was shattered when reality showed its face. But once I accepted the sadness that is so intertwined with every element, I grew so much closer to Child of Light. It's easy to heap praise on the combat because it's so interesting and engaging, and it's certainly a high point in this adventure. That's not what makes Child of Light stand out, though. Rather, it's how confident it is in its own feelings of woe. There are so few games willing to explore that dull ache that I became mesmerized by Aurora's journey, even when I needed to step away from her plight while I regained my composure. Child of Light is a wonderfully realized, somber adventure, and I couldn't be happier that such a game exists.

Editor's note: It has been more than four years since Child of Light first hit consoles. The somber tone that permeates the adventure still resonates deeply, using its delicate visuals and wistful music to capture a feeling of melancholy that still feels incredibly rare. The passage of time hasn’t undermined the sadness that makes this game so welcoming because there is still nothing quite like Child of Light. The transition to the Switch hasn’t hurt the experience in the slightest. Whether docked or in handheld mode, the beautiful artistic design shines through and the controls are smooth regardless of which controller you use.

Because this is the Ultimate Edition, there are bonus features that weren’t included in the original release. A couple of alternate skins for the protagonist are available from the onset along with a few items, one additional skill, and a new mission. It’s still the quiet adventure that is the main draw, though, and whether you’ve never before experienced Princess Aurora’s adventure or simply want to revisit this dreamlike world, Child of Light is just as great as it was years ago. -- October 11, 2018, 10:30 AM PT

Posted on 11 October 2018 | 5:30 pm

Chasm Review: The Battle Below

Although Chasm offers a rare procedurally generated spin on the classic Metroid formula, its demanding combat is what makes it stand out from the sea of imitators. Monsters roam among the twisted confines of an underground lair, demanding deft swordwork and stubborn determination to survive. And it's in that deadly dance against lurching zombies, scurrying rats, and all manner of creepy-crawlies that Chasm truly shines. The tense fights leave you with sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate, keeping you glued to the action as you venture ever deeper below ground.

As a recruit stationed in a castle far away from civilization, Chasm hints at a greater world just waiting to be explored. But after you're chosen to investigate the disturbances at a small village, it soon becomes clear the world's mysteries have to take a backseat to more pressing dangers. Journals uncovered as you explore the mines, temples, and jungles explain why evil beings are being summoned, but the story doesn't offer an interesting spin on a ho-hum premise. The little narrative appeal comes from the citizens you release from cages. Each person has their own tale to tell and errand for you to run, giving you someone to fight for as you eradicate the enemies.

Thankfully, combat is the main draw of Chasm. Melee is the predominant manner of attack, and there are a wide variety of swords, hammers, knives, and other short-range weapons to find throughout the adventure. Fighting relies heavily on timing as you must learn the behaviors of each enemy to have a chance at survival. Wights, for example, lunge at you with a sweeping sword strike that can be avoided if you know what to expect but could spell your doom if you're too slow. The clear signs from every enemy ensure that it's your skill that determines fights and not cheap tactics.

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Once you learn an enemy's attack patterns, patience is often your toughest foe. Monsters can take a half dozen strikes or more to die, but just one mistake can drop your life bar down to nothing. Trying to get one more hit on a bouncing Grilla or boomerang-throwing skeleton can be a suicidal strategy. The enemies take advantage of even the tiniest mistake, and there's no worse feeling than dying because of your own hubris.

The first half of Chasm offers a tough-but-fair challenge that is every bit as intense as you'd expect when there are demons and ghosts milling about. Save points are few and far between. Trekking across unknown places with little health makes every encounter agonizing in all the right ways. Even a mere bat--among the weakest of all video game enemies--can strike terror in your heart. I died more times than I'd like to admit from a swarm of flies when I got cocky that no insect would be the end of me. Whenever I came across a branching path, I would poke my nose in every new area, hoping that a save point would relieve me from the pressure. More often than not, there was an undead knight or green slime waiting, and I'd have to calm my nerves as I prepared for another life-or-death battle.

Bosses pose a formidable threat during those early hours when you're still weak and inexperienced. Like normal enemies, bosses telegraph every attack, so it's on you if you take too many hits. The first boss in the game--a Wendigo who can become invisible and cling to the ceiling--killed me over and over again before I mastered its attack pattern. Finally tasting victory was incredibly fulfilling because I knew I earned the win, and I was eager to see what new challenges awaited.

Chasm emphasizes the "vania" in Metroidvania, giving you experience points for every enemy you kill. There are dozens of weapons to collect and pieces of equipment to wear, so you can tailor your character to your playstyle. Like slow but powerful weapons? Grab an ax! Prefer quicker ones with less range? Go for a handy knife instead. In addition to melee weapons, there are also ranged items that use your magic meter. Hurl shuriken at faraway enemies or throw a Molotov cocktail to set the ground aflame. None of these are as satisfying to use as a sword, but they can be mighty handy when things become overwhelming and you need a little help to progress. There are also food and potions to stock up on if you're feeling acutely vexed by a particular enemy.

All of these extra items, though, lead to an unbalanced difficulty as you get deeper into the adventure. Although I never set out to grind, I did backtrack frequently and killed every enemy I encountered as I retread the underground world. By the end of the game, I was so powerful and the enemies were so easy, I never felt threatened. I defeated the last two bosses on my first attempts, which would have seemed impossible after I struggled for hours to kill those early bosses. The last boss was so easy it was almost comical. I just stood underneath it, never bothering to avoid its many attacks, as I hacked and slashed at its glowing weak point. I had more than half my health left when it died and felt the dull ache that only an anticlimactic final fight can produce as I watched the credits roll.

I did start again from the beginning, this time on Hard difficulty, but couldn't find that sweet spot I had been hoping for. Hard is, as you'd expect, hard. Not needlessly so, or even unfairly so, but harder than I could have endured as a novice. It's a real shame that the difficulty balance is so out of whack. I enjoyed playing every second of this game, even when I was killing enemies without breaking a sweat, mostly because the combat mechanics are so satisfying. But I missed that creeping danger from the early goings when I could die at any moment.

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The randomly generated levels also sound more impressive in theory than they are in practice. Yes, the layouts of the stages were different the second and third times I started over, but not so different that it felt like an entirely new adventure--the rooms were mostly the same, just located in slightly different positions. This isn't to say the random element is bad--my first time through was so fun that any extra incentive to start over again is appreciated--it's just not as noticeable a change as I was hoping.

I'm a sucker for beautiful pixel art, and Chasm is bursting with rich backgrounds and well-realized enemies. It's the little details that make all the difference. The rats eagerly wag their tails as their sprint toward you, making them seem almost cute as you thud them hard on the back with a hammer. The human-sized Meatman is every bit as gross as his name implies, and it almost felt like a mercy kill when I struck it through its muscled heart with my sword. Every new creature brought with it its own delights, so I was happy that there are almost 90 different enemies to meet and kill.

Even when its flaws are obvious, Chasm is a well-crafted adventure, and during the more than 12 hours I spent playing through my first time, I got lost only once. That's a huge bonus in a genre where getting lost is often the most frustrating aspect. Even after I finished, I was eager to venture forth on a new adventure, to test my combat mettle against harder foes and find the one secret that eluded me the first time through. It's a shame the randomization of the world isn't that big of a deal and the challenge could be better balanced, but the superb combat and visual design ensure your time with Chasm will be well spent.

Editor's note: The review score has been updated to reflect the PlayStation 4 and Switch versions of Chasm. -- October 11, 2018, 7:50 AM PT

Posted on 11 October 2018 | 2:50 pm

The Missing Review - Lost And Found

The games of Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as Swery) impart a distinctly identifiable creative vision. He revels in grounding you in the mundane before throwing you off balance with a moment of absurd humor or plunging you into a sequence of fantastical horror. Before you know it, that ground has opened up and swallowed you whole. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories feels smaller and less ambitious than his most recent works, Deadly Premonition or D4, but it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Swery game. At heart, it is a 2D platformer akin to Limbo or Inside that alternates between ambiguous narrative beats with frequently macabre puzzles, wrapped in a creeping sense of dread. As a puzzle-platformer, it succeeds in testing your timing and your wits despite a couple of overly finicky sections. As a story, it deftly explores themes of teen sexuality and identity with a rare tenderness, though it would ultimately be better served by a guiding hand that wasn't quite so determined to have a big late-game reveal.

You play as J.J. Macfield, a first-year college student living away from both home and the prying eyes of a loving yet conservative mother. On a holiday break, J.J. goes on a camping trip with best friend Emily, who goes missing during the night, spurring J.J. to set off and find her. J.J.'s search takes place on the small Memoria Island off the coast of Maine, whose indigenous name translates, appropriately enough, as "the place to find the lost." Even though it is set on the opposite side of the continent to Deadly Premonition, The Missing sees Swery return to quaint, semi-rural American landscapes where J.J. will travel through fields dotted with windmills, a sawmill, a lonely diner in the middle of nowhere, a bowling alley on a small-town strip mall, a dilapidated church, a highly exaggerated clock tower, and so on.

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Progress is made through navigating simple platforming obstacles, solving not-so-simple physics and environmental puzzles, and occasionally running the gauntlet of dramatic action sequences. An early puzzle sees you using rocks to counterweight a see-saw so J.J. can use it to reach a higher passageway, and indeed, there's a real weight and physicality to J.J.'s movement that helps support core narrative concerns gradually revealed across the course of the game. Control isn't instantly responsive, and when performing basic actions like jumping or turning around you have to wait for animations to complete before continuing. J.J. can also transition between standing upright, crouching on all fours, and lying prone in order to traverse, and it understandably takes longer to reorient yourself when flat on your belly than when standing on two feet. This weight makes you feel like you're controlling an actual human body that doesn't necessarily behave in the manner you would like it to--again reinforcing those narrative themes--but also comes into play with how you go about solving various puzzles.

Early on, J.J. inherits the ability to survive incidents that would otherwise kill you. Fall too far, for example, and you'll land with a sickening crunch. But you won't die--you'll get back up and continue on as a dark, shadow version of J.J., only with, say, a broken neck leaving you dazed and staggering. Lose a leg and J.J. resorts to hopping around and inevitably falling over, severely restricting your movement. Lose your arms and J.J. can no longer pick up objects or climb.

This grotesque mechanic informs a number of the game's puzzles--fail to crouch under a spinning buzzsaw and J.J. might be decapitated. You'll control J.J.'s head, rolling along the ground, and now able to squeeze into otherwise inaccessible crevices. Certain high impact "deaths" result not only in such injuries but flip the entire world upside down, sending J.J. tumbling to the ceiling along with any other objects affected by gravity. At any time, though, you can return this shadow version of J.J. back to original human form--limbs fully re-attached, neck un-snapped, world no longer upside down--thus ending the thematic body horror show and, more prosaically, allowing you to quickly retry that jump you missed or puzzle you mishandled. It is possible to actually die--hurling your decapitated head onto yet another spike trap will do it. But this simply resets you back to the last checkpoint, typically only a few minutes away at the start of the current puzzle section.

The Missing extracts a lot of mileage from this not-really-death mechanic. Together with the physicality of the platforming and the introduction of fire-, electricity- and water-based environmental interactions, puzzles are rarely too obvious and mostly satisfying to piece together. There were only two occasions when progress was halted by what felt like unfair means, where seemingly feasible puzzle solutions were overlooked by pedantic design, but these only make up a small number of the game's challenges overall.

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As J.J.'s search continues, key milestones are greeted by the buzz of a mobile phone. Over the course of the game, J.J. exchanges a series of text messages with F.K. (no, not the chap from Deadly Premonition), a childhood plushie toy apparently come to life, and is also able to unlock past conversations with Emily and with her mother. These messages, along with additional conversations with friends unlocked via collectibles, serve to sketch out J.J.'s backstory and gradually, but elusively, relate the events leading up to the beginning of the game.

The buzz of the mobile phone right on the tail of a stressful bit of platforming can feel jarring, puncturing the moment in what feels like a typically Swery way. Tonally, the conversations are all over the place, too, veering from stonewalling a concerned parent to arranging a study session with a classmate, or shrugging at career advice from a professor to telling your plushie to shut up. But they do a terrific job of painting a portrait of J.J.'s life before it was upended by a camping trip. Reminiscent of the audio diaries in Gone Home, these text messages are a heartfelt window into the insecurities and vulnerabilities of a teenager struggling to process the ways in which they don't conform to the expectations of so-called normal society.

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The Missing opens with the message: "This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are." It's a sentiment supported throughout, and particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between J.J. and Emily, except for one thing. The way the story structure withholds information--drip-feeding details to maintain suspense, in order to construct a surprise reveal at the end--ultimately feels like it undermines some, but crucially, not all of the good work it does along the way. The game wants to embrace diversity while at the same time treating a part of someone's identity as something of a 'gotcha' moment. It doesn't feel cynical--there are no bad intentions detected here--but its execution comes off as clumsy and its impact is diminished.

The faltering plot twist doesn't detract from the overall experience. The Missing is smaller and more mechanically conventional than Deadly Premonition or D4, but its components remain focused on distinctly a Swery game: a dark, idiosyncratic experience that tells a deeply personal story that's as confronting as it is sincere. It is absolutely not for everyone, but as the game reminds us, there is nothing wrong with that.

Posted on 11 October 2018 | 1:00 pm

Luigi's Mansion Review - Old Haunts

Luigi's Mansion was a curious launch title for the GameCube back in 2001, and it's even more curious as an end-of-life title for the 3DS. It's got the feel of an eccentric mid-generation release, a July stopgap to keep you going while you wait for the next major title. But Nintendo's faith in Luigi's Mansion, which has taken on a cult status over the years and has a second sequel due to release on Switch next year, isn't misplaced--the game still has a lot of charm.

Luigi's Mansion sees Mario's put-upon younger brother exploring a mansion after receiving a letter telling him that he won it in a contest. He arrives to find that not only is the mansion haunted and full of ghosts, but that Mario received a similar letter and has not been seen since he entered.

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When it released, the game represented a major shift away from the usual Mario format--there's no jump button here. Instead, Luigi has a flashlight and a ghost-sucking vacuum (the Poltergust 3000), which he needs to use to rid the mansion of ghosts and save a captured Mario in the process. You move through the mansion methodically, unlocking new rooms by vacuuming up the ghosts in the ones you've already opened.

The ghosts are divided between your standard ghoulies, 'portrait' ghosts (mini-bosses and bosses, essentially, which have escaped out of paintings), and Nintendo's familiar Boos. Standard ghosts come in a few different varieties--some will grab you, others will punch, throw bombs, or hurl banana peels for you to slip on--and can be vacuumed up once you shine your flashlight at the heart visible in their ethereal chests. When you start up your vacuum, Luigi will be dragged around the room as they try to escape, and you lower their hit-points by pulling the stick away from them, as though Luigi was pulling back, while keeping the vacuum trained on them. It's a fun system, especially when you manage to nab multiple ghosts at once and have to put in the effort to reel them all in.

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Luigi's 'Strobulb' flashlight from Luigi's Mansion 2 has also been added. The Strobulb, which can be charged for an extra big flash of light, is useful in a few scenarios--I found that it was helpful for nabbing multiple invisible enemies at once--but the game was designed with a standard flashlight in mind, and I mostly stuck with it.

Portrait ghosts are the main meat of the game and capturing them generally involves solving a small puzzle or figuring out the pattern of their movements. None of them are too complicated--you can examine each portrait ghost for a clue, and simply interacting with the objects in the room will usually trigger the ghost's 'stun' state so that you can begin to vacuum them. These are fun encounters, even if their patterns are usually easy to predict. Hunting the 50 Boos that scatter around the mansion at a certain point in the story is enjoyable for the first 40-or-so--a blinking light on the screen lets you know when you're close to one, and during a chase they can slip through walls and into other rooms--but the novelty of these pursuits wears out towards the end of the game.

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Once most of the mansion's doors are open and its rooms cleared are towards the end you'll have to do a lot of backtracking, which can get tedious. But it's worth tracking down every ghost--this is a short game, and you'll get more out of it if you hunt down everything. The brevity of Luigi's Mansion was a major complaint during the initial launch, and while our expectations regarding game length have shifted somewhat (six-hour games are less unusual than they were at the time) Luigi's Mansion still feels like it ends too early. While you can replay for a high score, dictated by how much treasure you find and earn, or play the more difficult 'Hidden Mansion' mode that unlocks after finishing the game, the core experience is still a tad thin. 2013's Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon was a big improvement in this regard, although there's still an allure to the original game's focus on a single location that you slowly master.

The 3DS' second screen is put to great use too, now displaying a 2D map of the mansion at all times. This makes navigation much easier than it was on the GameCube, as there's no need to bring up a separate map screen, which cuts down on some late-game frustration. You now tilt the 3DS to dictate where Luigi is pointing his light or vacuum, which mostly works but can be finicky when the camera plays up in some of the game's tighter spaces. Although the game supports the C-stick on the New Nintendo 3DS, it's not viable since Luigi barely moves his torch or vacuum when using it--motion controls are essential.

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Despite these few tweaks and additions, Luigi's Mansion still feels like the same game it was in 2001. That means the little touches that made the game so memorable have remained. Luigi still charmingly hums the theme tune--confidently or fearfully, depending on whether the room you're in has been cleared or not--and his shaky animations are as much of a delight as ever. Luigi still carries a translucent purple 'Game Boy Horror', which can be used to scan rooms for clues. Even the hilarious interact animation that makes it look like Luigi is humping everything in the room, often paired with an enthusiastic 'oh, yeah!', is unchanged. The stranger puzzles and curious aesthetic elements that you might remember remain, and it serves as an interesting, fun look into how Nintendo managed the transition into their fourth console generation.

Luigi's Mansion is the only GameCube port Nintendo has put onto the 3DS, and while some details have been noticeably toned down for the 3DS' smaller screens (the ghosts are less translucent, for example) there's nothing that feels like an unreasonable compromise. The game adapts to a lower resolution much better than many of the Wii and Wii U ports we've seen to the 3DS, giving the game the curious feel of an excellent tech demo for a system that is now on its way out.

The main new feature is an offline co-op mode, which lets you play the entire game through with another player if they also have a copy of the game (or replay boss fights with anyone who owns a 3DS). The second player gets to control a version of Luigi made entirely from green goo, and can assist throughout the game by sucking up ghosts and helping to solve puzzles. This is likely to be a very niche feature--Luigi's Mansion is not an especially difficult game and playing together on your 3DS just doesn't appeal the same way a traditional console does--but it's a neat bonus. The whole game also supports 3D, and looks great with the slider turned up.

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The game also supports four amiibo--Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Boo--and each one will make your game permanently easier. Mario will change the poisonous mushrooms ghosts sometimes spit out into super mushrooms that restore health, Luigi gives you a chance of surviving death, and Boo will mark the location of five undiscovered Boos on the map. By far the most useful, though, is Toad--the Toads scattered around the mansion act as save points, and if you scan this amiibo they'll also restore your health. This is the one enhancement that should have been made universal--not having to shake every item in every room for hearts takes some potential tedium out of the game.

Seventeen years after its first release, with one sequel out and another on its way, there's still nothing quite like Luigi's Mansion. Nintendo's strange foray into the paranormal has aged well--I was surprised at how much of it had stuck in my memory, and how good it felt being back in its haunted halls. It's a basic port with a few issues, but Luigi's Mansion still remains a charming and enjoyable game.

Posted on 11 October 2018 | 1:00 pm

Super Mario Party Review - Test Those Friendships

Anyone who's played a Mario Party game in the past 20 years has a good idea of what to expect from Switch's Super Mario Party, but Nintendo's latest offers a few new modes that each add their own creative spin on the tried-and-true formula. In many ways, Super Mario Party feels smaller than previous games in the series, but added layers of strategy and clever, fun minigames help keep it lively and fresh.

The fierce competitive nature of the series' earliest titles is back, as Super Mario Party ditches Mario Party 9 and 10's cooperative car mechanic and once again pits players against each other in a race for Stars. The overall goal in Super Mario Party is to earn five Gems, which you get after completing each of the game's five major offline modes: Mario Party, Partner Party, Challenge Road, River Survival, and Sound Stage.

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Mario Party mode features the series' classic formula of bite-sized games interspersed between rounds of board game hijinks. Your character is still placed on a board with three others where you'll all race after Toadette and her collection of Stars. The biggest change is the introduction of character dice blocks; while previous Mario Party games utilized virtual 10-sided dice, now every character has two dice blocks, one six-sided and the other unique to them, and you have to decide which one to use each turn. The six-sided die rolls a one through six, while each character die comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

For example, Mario's has a number three on three of its sides, while the remaining three sides are one, five, and six. In comparison, the devilish gambler Wario has a special die where two of the sides cause him to lose two coins, but the other four sides are sixes. For the first time in a Mario Party game, your choice of character is more than just aesthetic, and figuring out the best time to use a specific dice block adds a level of strategy to what's typically been an act of randomness.

Each of the game's four boards requires slight tweaks to your strategy for reaching the Star, but they're all small, and most don't take advantage of their unique makeups. Whomp's Domino Ruins, for example, features Whomps who will block your path down certain shortcuts. The board only has two Whomps, though, so you don't encounter them very often, and even when you do, the board is small enough that taking the long way around won't put you at much of a disadvantage. Super Mario Party's four boards don't feel distinct, so your strategy for each one won't be all that different. And since there are only four boards in total to pick from, Mario Party mode grows stale fairly quickly.

There are a total of 80 minigames in Super Mario Party, putting it just behind Mario Party 6, 7, and 9 in terms of quantity. Of the 80 minigames, nearly half rely on the motion control or rumble features in the Switch's Joy-Cons. Don't fret; both the motion and rumble features work surprisingly well, and it makes for some of the most cleverly designed games in the Mario Party series. For example, in Fiddler on the Hoof, you and three others race horses, and making a pulling back motion with the Joy-Con to simulate whipping the reins increases your score if you move with the beat of the song that's playing. In Nut Cases, you and a partner need to outwit the other team by claiming the five boxes that have the most walnuts inside them. You get an idea as to a box's contents by picking it up and measuring the severity of your Joy-Con's vibration. As Super Mario Party only supports motion control with a single Joy-Con, you won't be able to play the game in handheld mode or with a Pro Controller.

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Partner Party mode is Super Mario Party's reimagining of Mario Party 6's Team Battle mode. The rules are similar to Mario Party mode, but there are more paths around the board, and you need to actually land on Toadette's spot to get a Star instead of just collecting it while passing by. The minor obstacles from Mario Party mode become trickier to get past in Partner Party because you need to remain mindful of both you and your partner. Paying to move Whomp out of the way might get you to the Star more quickly, but doing so could trap other players, including your teammate. There's the possibility of winning the next minigame and earning enough coin to buy an item to free them, but that's no guarantee. This type of consideration and amount of forethought simply doesn't exist in Mario Party mode.

Two of the other major modes, River Survival and Sound Stage, are new to the Mario Party franchise. The former has you working together with three others to survive a trip down a dangerous river while playing Co-op minigames, while the latter is an energetic dance competition where you solely play Rhythm minigames. Both River Survival and Sound Stage offer fun, albeit brief, alternatives to the staple Mario Party formula. The Co-op and Rhythm minigames are also some of the best in the Mario Party series, especially the Rhythm ones like Fiddler on the Hoof, that have you actually standing up and moving around to match the groove of the game's characters. Both Co-op and Rhythm minigames lack the heated competition of other head-to-head minigames, but they do pump up a room.

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Super Mario Party's final major mode, Challenge Road, is the closest the game has to a single-player campaign, but it only opens up once you've unlocked all 80 minigames. The mode has you play through every single minigame with specific handicaps placed on you to make each one harder. For example, a racing minigame might challenge you to get first place without running into any of the track's hazards. This mode comes very close to giving Super Mario Party just the amount of challenge the game would need to increase its longevity, but unfortunately it buckles. If you fail at a challenge three times, the game asks you if you'd like to just skip it. You can always come back and beat the challenge later if you want, but the mode never punishes you for skipping any of the minigames. As long as you get to the end of the road, regardless if you skipped a dozen challenges to get there, you'll still earn one of the five Gems you need.

Super Mario Party also has several smaller modes and features that aren't tied to earning the Super Star title. In Mariothon, you compete in five minigames where outlasting your opponents in time-based games earns you extra points on the tournament ladder. There's an online version of Mariothon too, and you can either play in a private lobby with your friends or compete on a worldwide stage and fight to climb up in the rankings. We had no connectivity issues when playing online, but the private lobby did load faster. Square Off is also a minigame-based tournament, but after each win, you're allowed to claim a territory space. Owning the pieces of territory on either side of another player's territory nets you their space too, and the game continues until every space is filled. The winner is whoever owns the most spaces at the end of the match. Both modes give you a goal to strive for while playing minigames, which creates extra levels of competition amongst a group of friends.

The new Partner Party, River Survival, and Sound Stage modes add enjoyable alternatives to Mario Party mode--which at least returns to its competitive roots.

There's also Toad's Rec Room, where you can play unique games that change based on how you position your Switch, and a Stickers room, where you can cover a wall in a mural of stickers you've collected. Both seem tacked on to Super Mario Party; the former to justify putting the game on a console that can be played on a horizontal plane, in kickstand mode, or in a dock, and the latter to give you a reason to go out and buy some Amiibos to scan and get special stickers that aren't earnable within the game. Although the option of changing perspectives in Toad's Rec Room--such as looking at a baseball field from a bird's eye, laid-back, or pitcher's view--is an interesting gimmick, none of the games are really made better by adjusting how you look at them. The Stickers room is not worth getting invested in at all.

Everything about Super Mario Party feels smaller in comparison to previous titles in the series. Both Mario Party and Partner Party mode play on small boards, and certain modes, like Challenge Road, have clear tier points to make it easy to play through in small chunks. So it's all the more puzzling that you can't actually play Super Mario Party on the go in handheld mode. Given you need a seperate Joy-Con to perform the motion-based actions in the game, it makes sense, but it's still odd to see a game on Switch that actively prevents you from making use of the console's portability.

Most of Super Mario Party's varied assortment of 80 minigames are fun, especially if you've got a full group of four players, as the NPCs aren't smart or skilled enough to pose much of a challenge until you unlock Master difficulty. The new Partner Party, River Survival, and Sound Stage modes add enjoyable alternatives to Mario Party mode--which at least returns to its competitive roots. And even if the unique character dice blocks don't shake up Super Mario Party's four boards enough to give Mario Party mode some longevity, they implement small moments of strategy into a series that has for too long solely relied on randomness to determine a winner.

Editor's note: This was originally a review in progress. Now that the game has launched, we have updated and finalized this review to reflect our experience with the online functionality.

Posted on 9 October 2018 | 7:56 pm

My Memory of Us Review - War Has Changed

My Memory of Us, a game by Polish developer Juggler Games that focuses on the plight of two Polish children during a robot uprising, serves as a thin allegory for World War II, and obviously means well. This is important, as a version of My Memory of Us that didn't have its heart in the right place would be a disaster. This puzzle platformer aims to pay tribute to the Polish citizens who lost their lives during the Nazi occupation, especially those that provided shelter and help to the people around them, and the game feels like it intends to be respectful, especially in the collectible "memories" that tell you more about the real-world people who inspired the game. Unfortunately, the good intentions of My Memory Of Us are obscured by dull gameplay and poor metaphors.

You play as a young boy and girl simultaneously, neither of whom are given names. Early in the game a "robot occupation" occurs, standing in for the Nazi occupation of Poland, and you find yourself guiding these two kids through an increasingly perilous situation. The game is a puzzle-platformer with an intentionally limited monochromatic color palette, with a sparing use of red. You can swap between the two characters or move them both at once by having them hold hands, and solving most puzzles comes down to running around interacting with everything and using the unique abilities of each kid. The boy can sneak and shine light into people's eyes to temporarily blind them if he happens to be standing in a patch of light, while the girl can run and use a slingshot, abilities which make her more enjoyable to control.

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Occasionally the children will be separated or will need to work together while having access to different parts of the map and different resources. Some sections have a stealth focus, where you'll need to creep between cover and avoid enemy patrol patterns, and there are even a few vehicle sections (think Excitebike but much slower) scattered throughout. Any sequence like this with a potential fail state can get tedious thanks to some control issues--climbing objects requires more inputs than it should, the hand-holding mechanic can be unresponsive, vehicle sections feel stiff, and checkpoints that could stand to be more generous.

The puzzles you solve often resemble those you might find in a very simple point-and-click adventure and are rarely well implemented into the game world or plot. For example, figuring out a padlock combination during one sequence set within an orphanage involves observing an equation left on a blackboard, which encourages you to multiply birds by strawberries, then subtract the number of ships. The solution is to use a telescope upstairs to count the birds outside, multiply that number by the strawberries that appear in a thought bubble above an NPC's head after finding and giving them a jar of strawberry jam, and then subtracting the number of ships dotted around the house the padlocked door is in. This isn't a difficult puzzle to solve, but there's a sense of disconnect between your actions and the outcome, and completing it feels like busywork.

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This is an issue throughout the game, where the impact and logic of your actions is often unclear. You're regularly stumbling ahead just looking for the next thing you're able to interact with, unsure of what outcome you're trying to achieve. The best puzzles are the more traditional ones--there are sliding tile puzzles, a few numeric brain-teasers, and even a clever maze later in the game. They largely feel divorced from the levels they're in, but some of them are at least entertaining.

A bigger problem is the concept of dressing up a Nazi invasion as a robot invasion. The plot's framing device--that the boy, now an old man voiced by the great Patrick Stewart, is telling a story to a young girl who visits his bookshop--can only justify the game's euphemisms so far. The conceit is that the story is being changed to make it child-appropriate and more exciting; in practice, though, obscuring the truth of the story just makes things weird. Stewart delivers his lines, set against static cutscenes between missions, with his trademark timbre, but it's hard to get past the fact that the game has taken something horrific and made it cute.

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Worst still is when the metaphor the game is operating under starts to fall apart. Partway through the game, the girl gets marked as "red" by the robot army. The game's "red" people wear red clothing, painted on by the robots' machines, and suddenly find themselves treated like lesser beings by everyone. It's an obvious tribute to the girl in the red coat from Schindler's List, but as a metaphor for how the Polish Jews were treated, it feels too ham-fisted as a metaphor and far from the horror of what it is meant to fill in for, especially when it seems like the citizens being painted are being chosen, essentially, at random. It's possible to tell a Holocaust story like this through metaphor and abstraction--Art Spiegelman's comic Maus stands as perhaps the best example--but it never feels like My Memory of Us has anything new or interesting to say about the period it is depicting, and framing it as a story being told to a child does not excuse this.

The disconnect between the game's cuter aesthetic elements and the story, where characters get sent to live in ghettos and whisked off to concentration camps, is jarring. In one scene, a robot commander demands that the girl dance for him (which plays out as a button-matching minigame), throwing her a literal bone (which you need to subdue a dog) when she succeeds. The cruelty of this act is obscured by the game's layers of metaphor. There are a few moments when the game's aesthetic works well--one section where the two characters dress up in a crude robot costume is a standout--but the tonal confusion dampens most of the experience. The game's art style and soundtrack are both great, despite a few mild performance hiccups where the music would blip out for a moment, but even the way both children are smiling in their idle animations feels wrong.

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Things improve later in the game when it leans in harder to the underlying horror of the situation. The weird fantastical elements still don't quite sit right, but when you're, say, releasing other "red" people from the robot's flying train while it's on its way to a camp, there's a tangible sense of gravity to proceedings, and there are a few plot beats that land well. When a weird, out-of-place final boss fight (complete with stuttering performance issues) breaks out in the penultimate level it's hard to know what the game stands for. But the emotional finale that immediately follows, while simple, manages to pay off well on the relationship at the game's core, providing the closure a story like this needs.

My Memory of Us feels misguided; a concept that doesn’t sit well, marred by puzzle gameplay that fails to challenge or excite. It means well, and divorced from the game's context, the game's aesthetic is charming. But it doesn’t really work as either a puzzle game or as an educational experience.

Posted on 9 October 2018 | 1:00 pm

World of Warcraft: Battle For Azeroth - Come One, Come All

Editor's note: This review has been updated to reflect the state of Battle for Azeroth after its first major content update which includes the Uldir Raid and Warfronts. This information can be found near the end of the review -- October 8, 2018

Teldrassil has been burned to the ground. Sylvanas Windrunner steps over the corpses of slain rangers and civilians alike who were impetuous enough to get in her way, only to seal the fate of more innocents in fire and blood as her lithe frame is backlit by an inferno of destruction. The tone of your introduction to Battle for Azeroth is as clear as day: The Horde is evil, and this is no longer a fight about old territories or grievances. This is wartime, and nothing is sacrosanct. Well, apart from the planet that we reside on, the right of foisting faction politics upon new civilizations, and the art of constant, grave misunderstandings.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth swoops in on a plaguebat right where the previous expansion, Legion, leaves off. Everyone is ecstatic about sending the Legion back into the realm that spawned them, and people are getting on with their lives. However, in the closing moments of the last expansion, we saw the introduction of a new resource for Anduin and Sylvanas to butt heads over: azerite. This is key to the central narrative that unfolds; no one really knows what azerite does, but Sargeras left it behind and everyone's convinced that it should be harnessed for destruction. Battle for Azeroth's pre-patch content painted the Horde as warmongering and the Alliance as the bulwark against the violence, and to that end, this new resource is just another symbol for the two to take a moral stance on--a dance of power around yet another weapon that has power beyond our reckoning.

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That dance of power is crucial to the initial motivations of both factions and plays out neatly in the narrative that guides you to the expansion's new zones--it's the reason that your various leaders send you out on reconnaissance missions that bring you to those areas. That said, you pivot almost immediately from the big picture concerns of your faction's war effort to the wants and needs of relative strangers. Those familiar with the World of Warcraft canon will have some insight into the motivations of the new allied races you meet--the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari. Both new allies have their own power struggles to contend with before they display any interest in assisting either the Horde or the Alliance, and predictably, this spawns the cycle of fetch quests, reputation gains, and achievements required in order to gain their trust.

The ebb and flow of questing in the zones feels very much like the experience in Legion. It took me around 25 hours to get from level 110 to level 120 on one character, which feels like it keeps pace with solo leveling from the last expansion. Regardless of whether you're Horde or Alliance, you'll get to cherry pick which one of three distinct zones you want to start in. The Horde get down and dirty with the Zandalari trolls, investigating everything from political intrigue to the wrath of blood magic. The Alliance deal with fan-favorite Jaina Proudmoore and the legacy of resentment that her father's death left behind (did we mention the pirates?). In either regard, all these zones have their own self-contained stories for you to see to fruition that indirectly speak to powers beyond our comprehension, meaning while they're equal parts comedic and captivating; they most certainly do not stray from the World of Warcraft formula.

The fact that these condensed stories are so engaging actually works against the impact of the wider expansion's narrative. After spending hours in the desert with the vulpera and the sethrak, and dealing with everything from shepherding cubs to thwarting the plans of long-sleeping god puppets, it's hard to take orders from Sylvanas' right hand. Your faction's leaders seem so far removed from the daily bloodletting and the weariness of dangerous diplomatic relations that doing their bidding starts to feel like a chore. The inhabitants of these new zones are so colorful and so full of life that you feel incentivized to do the myriad of side quests that they tantalizingly offer up to you. It's all too easy to put the main story quests on hold to just spend a couple more minutes in eerie Nazmir, or to risk scurvy in the Tiragarde Sound.

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This lack of a coherent, meaningful connection to the overarching azerite panic that serves as Battle for Azeroth's main narrative tension can be frustrating. We're still waiting on plenty of content, so nothing truly definitive really happens to tip either faction's hand after Sylvanas' initial massacre. In the meantime, you passively hoard power and skills without really knowing what good they'll do you later on. For example, you'll power up azerite armor in place of artifact weapons in this expansion, but your armor automatically levels up as you quest, and the selections you make as to quality-of-life skills don't feel as impactful as before. You also don't have to do anything special to get your hands on this armor, which in turn cheapens the gearing experience as you're leveling. The same could be said to some extent about raising your professions; gone are the days of having to sit by a campfire to grind out every godforsaken recipe before you could learn the latest dishes. You can crack into Battle for Azeroth's crafting right away, even if you're a complete novice, which is convenient. But it's hard not to be nostalgic for the days where the trek of profession leveling brought some sense of real achievement.

Once you get to 120, it's a bit of a coin toss as to what you should do while you're waiting for the next batch of content--you're probably best served by doing world quests and improving your reputation in order to unlock the Allied Races. There are other things to cut your teeth on, but the narrative doesn't instill in you a pressing desire to do (or to know) more. At this point in time, Battle for Azeroth offers War Mode and Island Expeditions as tidbits to tide you over until its next patch.

War Mode basically paints a giant bullseye on your chest, slaps you on the back and says "Venture forth, you poor sod." This mode grants you an experience bonus, but the price you pay is drawing the attention of players from the opposing faction. If you're someone with bad memories of Alliance players performing drive-bys on you as your friends scramble to get into Shadowfang Keep, then you may want to stay away from this mode. You may luck out if you're on a server that isn't particularly bloodthirsty, but even those who embrace the chaos will find that it is too much of a double-edged sword; doing well in War Mode ups the ante by letting others know that you're a threat to be put down. If the hounds of war don't sniff you out immediately, then the game's intervention definitely speeds up the process.

Island Expeditions offer their own brand of excitement. While the name suggests that you'll be relaxing on a beach somewhere and enjoying mojitos with Genn Greymane, the reality is the exact opposite. You can participate in Expeditions with AI or other players, and the focus is to undertake a mad dash for azerite within a territory where randomness controls the obstacles that you face: everything from regular to elite mobs, enemy NPCs and players, and the main affair, picking up a whole heap of azerite. While the first few expeditions can feel like a fresh change of pace, the cyclical nature of the activity means it starts to grow old fairly quickly. There are various difficulties of expeditions which offer better rewards with each tier along with tougher enemies, but it feels a like a bandage slapped over the Mythic+-shaped content hole in our hearts.

This expansion wields its central conceit of a dying world with a lack of finesse; something is Badly Wrong but not so wrong that it can't wait for you to gallivant around collecting battle pets for a century before you deal with it. That said, the expansion is rivetingly effective at telling tales about underdogs, witches, family curses and pirate fraternities in ways that make you care. It's in the strength of these segments that cause you to see the cracks in the other aspect of the game--even though we know there's going to be a lot more content made available as the expansion gets patched over time. In the wake of the latest Warbringers visual, it's certain that we'll have some Old God-flavored questions answered sooner rather than later, and a host of new things for the factions to unite over that aren't the giant sword splitting the very realm into pieces.

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As with previous expansions, Blizzard was saving its endgame content for a few weeks after its release. Battle For Azeroth is no exception, and the content roll-outs since Day One have included two major highlights: the new Warfronts assault mode and the release of the Uldir raid.

The latter is the first in a long string of encounters that will contextualize some of the conflict we’ve faced in the various leveling zones leading up to the maximum level cap. This latest titan mishap is available across the standard difficulties--Normal, Heroic, and Mythic. Additionally, the first two wings are currently available as part of LFR (Looking For Raid) for those who are wanting to be eased into the idea of confronting yet another cosmic mistake by the powers that be. The last wing is due to release on LFR soon, which will bring the horror of this expansion’s token Old God threat, G’thuun, to those who have been playing more casually.

Raids have been refined according to World of Warcraft’s tried and tested formula--a sprinkle of cutscene here, a monologue there, five packs of trash mobs, and boss fights that have faint echoes of enemies that you’ve already put to rest. Each raid brings its own environmental narrative that’s intrinsically tied to the wider world, and Uldir is no exception. An abandoned titan facility is the backdrop for you and other adventurers to probe the depths of the corruption that is G’thuun and its hold over the Zandalari.

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Once again, trying to tame the unfathomable power of one’s enemies sets the scene for destruction; an ancient horror has its seals broken and is in danger of consuming the world. We’ve seen this before, but that doesn’t mean that it’s less enjoyable in its most recent iteration. Getting to the level required to queue for it in LFR is made easier by scaling world quests and the ability to farm Heroic dungeons, which is a nice nod to Blizzard’s recent focus on making end-game content more accessible for all.

The Warfronts are also another good example of how Battle for Azeroth has tried to ensure that the stuff that gets your heart racing isn’t locked behind an impassable item level cap and limited availability gear drops. Taking the “battle” part of the expansion seriously, it builds upon the concept previously introduced by Island Expeditions by giving the Alliance and the Horde more opportunities to give each other the beat down. Warfronts are territorial skirmishes which draw inspiration from Warcraft III, and they’re predicated on the back-and-forth nature of the conflict between the game’s factions.

They’re not nearly as self-contained as the Expeditions can feel, and they have less reliance on RNG. It’s all about playing the (relatively) long strategy game; the factions will wrestle over a particular region, and the victor will win not only the land in question but also the chance to take down rare mobs for rewards. However, with great power comes a lot of people trying to take it from you. The challenging faction is given the chance to win stolen territory back over the course of a week after doing some initial war prep in the form of gathering supplies and bolstering military efforts. Players then contribute to the land grab by queuing into a Warfront instance to take on enemy bosses and more in an attempt to destabilize the controlling faction.

The cyclical nature of Warfronts is a manufactured push and pull that translates faction politics to the PvE sphere. The fact that no one faction can consecutively gain control of an area is heartening; some servers have a population imbalance between Alliance and Horde, and it would be unfair to penalize them for it by making it a game of sheer numbers and contributions. That being said, those who don’t have the patience to wait out this affair will have to look elsewhere for end-game entertainment. In general, the additions so far to Battle for Azeroth have clearly taken both veteran and new players into account, but whether they will provide any real longevity or narrative closure still remains to be seen. It’s early days yet in the shelf life of a World of Warcraft expansion.

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Battle for Azeroth features the exciting culmination of the intimate character storylines for some of the franchise's most famous heroes and villains, the Allied Races themselves are so well-crafted that it's almost worth it for lore aficionados alone, and visually, World of Warcraft looks the best that it has been in a long time. But the expansion feels like it sometimes relies too heavily on the days when both factions were at each other's throats--the conflict now feels too manufactured to truly incite the war both leaders appear to be gunning for. It's clear that Battle for Azeroth tries very hard to balance the needs of new players with those of long-time fans, and as was the case in Legion, it demonstrates that the line between refinement and oversimplification can feel very thin. It's an overall good addition to World of Warcraft's current state, but it's a gamble as to whether its upcoming content will make it truly special.

Posted on 8 October 2018 | 11:00 pm