Hell is teeming with demonic masters tricked into subservience by Lucifer himself--or Lucy, as Strife affectionately calls him in Darksiders: Genesis. An isometric hack-and-slash bonanza, the latest instalment in the Darksiders series sees you puppeteer dastardly duo War and Strife in a combat-fueled romp filled with bombastic brawls, infernal abominations, and quippish one-liners.
The protagonistic pair form one cohesive half of the Four Horsemen--a parade of soldiers born from the ungodly union of angels and devils. And yet Genesis' story is wonderfully witty and whimsically warm. War is a belligerent and straight-laced gladiator who takes everything very, very seriously, and Strife has brilliant fun hurling droll jests his way. "Knock knock," opens one exchange. "What?" replies War. "You're supposed to say 'Who's there?'," retorts an incredulous Strife. "Why would I give away my location? I would simply smash through the door and face my assailant," reasons War.
The pair are so radically different to one another that the writing really has room to blossom into something special. To make this even more charming, the majority of Genesis' cutscenes unfold in a comic-book panel aesthetic--much like previous Darksiders games. The animation is stylish and memorable, and helps to ensure that Genesis never gets too grave--quip after quip, panel after panel, it's a game about Hell and the end of the world that maintains a delightful degree of charisma and warmth. It's also spectacularly garish, to the extent that its inherent campiness becomes its biggest strength.
Each of the two characters has their own distinct playstyle, both of which are excellent. War uses his gargantuan sword, Chaoseater, to tussle with enemies at close-range--he's a big, hulking bruiser that enjoys a good knock. Strife, on the other hand, has a pair of trusty pistols and excels when quickly moving about the battlefield. Like his wit, his movements are sharp and precise, and he's very well-suited to players who enjoy pummeling bosses in between choreographed sequences of fancy footwork. Being able to switch between the two on the fly allows for a massive amount of diversity in combat.
Although the genesis of Genesis is the relationship between its joint protagonists, these differences in combat style are what make it shine as a Darksiders game. It may seem as if this is budget Darksiders--an isometric camera angle and a short but sweet story. It's the opposite. You emphatically feel like a member of the Four Horsemen. As you learn new abilities--called Enhancements in Genesis--you gradually gain access to combos so devastating that it makes sense for the masters of Hell to fear you. War can channel lightning into his sword and unleash it upon his enemies, whereas Strife can shoot legitimate lava bullets from his pistols--he's half-gunslinger, half-volcano.
You have two different variables to pay attention to while you're in the thick of it: Health and Wrath. The former is a straightforward vitality meter, whereas the latter is tied to special abilities. For every Wrath bar you fill, you can use one of these powers--maybe you'll do a flaming somersault or create a clone of yourself to serve as a decoy while you leg it back to safety.
However, the real fun starts when you fill your Wrath meter right up to the brim and then some. After achieving this, you gain access to your Chaos mode, which causes you to temporarily become a colossus. War lights himself and his sword on fire, while Strife gets a gun that seems to shoot space dust. If you're clever, you can deprive a boss of half their health with a single Chaos transformation. It's an excellent mechanic because it's difficult to obtain and necessitates a lot of risk--you can't spend your Wrath bars on standard abilities if you're saving up to go Plus Ultra, Darksiders style. However, when you pull it off, you become a force of nature wreaking havoc on the hordes of hell and reminding their infernal lords that the Nephilim are not to be trifled with. It's almost as if they seem to forget that one of you was literally named after war itself.
You improve your Health, Wrath, and general attack power by investing in what's more of a skill map than a skill tree. Because it's refreshingly easy to navigate this skill map, you can experiment with a variety of combat styles without having to pump hours into trying different permutations. Although each character only has a single, distinct build, the wide range of enhancements and abilities available to you begets combat that never truly becomes boring or laborious, which is a massive testament to why the game actually works. One minute you're using your sword to rip up the ground and shoot a shock wave at your opponent, the next you're putting on a red Iron Man-esque gauntlet and smashing hordes into bits from above. The more fights you pick, the more the game opens up for you in terms of varied belligerence.
However, the isometric camera angle is not well-suited to the game's platforming sections whatsoever, which means that any puzzle that requires mobility to solve is a nightmare, especially on mouse and keyboard. At times, movement seems entirely arbitrary, as moving right in one section might have the same directional effect as moving up in another, even when tied to the exact same angle and situation. Most of Genesis' puzzles are intuitive, especially in co-op where the gear system really gets to shine--War and Strife each have access to three tools, which are used for problem-solving. However, once traversal comes into the question, puzzles become chores, and the momentum of an otherwise excellent game slows to a disheartening standstill.
There are also quite a few bugs in Genesis, but they're relatively minor and can be easily rectified. I got stuck in rocks on at least five occasions, but because the game auto-saves so regularly, a soft reboot fixed these pretty quickly. However, a more serious bug can occur in co-op. The host is fine, but the person playing in their friend's server can automatically switch to first-person mode, which isn't even supposed to be an option as far as I know. Being forced to wander around a world designed for third-person in first-person is far less than ideal. This issue can be fixed by summoning your horse and immediately dismounting it, but you can't summon a horse in dungeons or tight spaces, and even though these bugs may be co-op specific, they break the game. A shame, really, because co-op is where puzzles become complex endeavors that necessitate proper teamwork, and where boss fights encourage synergized button-mashing instead of 100 slightly-concentrated mouse-clicks a minute--not that rapid clicks are a bad thing in a good hack-and-slash. It's just more satisfying to strategize and quickly dispatch enemies with a partner.
Despite these issues, Darksiders: Genesis is a very worthy prequel to an established series. The combat is excellently engaging, the writing is genuinely funny without having to try too hard, and the art is consistently captivating. It's a shame about the dodgy camera angle--this is a game that doesn't really benefit from an isometric perspective for the most part, despite the hack-and-slash aspects being easy to control in top-down view. But at the end of the day, Darksiders: Genesis has a clear identity. It's not the most experimental game in the world, but it takes a variety of tried-and-tested systems and executes them with bravado and grace.
King of Cards, the third (and final) Shovel Knight expansion, feels almost like a full-blown sequel. Starring the memorable King Knight, it harkens back to the gameplay of the original Shovel Knight adventure in both structure and execution. It's filled to the brim with varied and challenging levels, each more refined and focused than before by building on the many established strengths of this enduring franchise.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards acts as a prequel to the events of the original game in the same way that Specter of Torment did, following King Knight prior to his induction in the Order of No Quarter. It's a humorously written tale that gives more insight into the petulant and egotistical (but consistently entertaining) self-proclaimed King as you battle across the land to claim your namesake through a frivolous Joustus tournament. This is a new card game sweeping the kingdom, controlled by three of its best players in each of the regions you'll visit and claim for yourself.
King Knight's adventure falls squarely into standard Shovel Knight fare, with King of Cards feeling the most similar in structure to the original adventure out of the three expansions and the closest to a sequel in its scope. There's the same Super Mario Bros. 3-styled overworld map that you can work through in various ways. You can choose the shortest path to the region's boss battle or enjoy exploring by using alternative exits in levels to create paths to secret stages filled with valuable loot or new weapons and abilities. Side boss battle and optional treasure challenges pop up on the map to tempt you into treading off the beaten path, rewarding your detours with unsurprisingly stratifying platforming puzzles or nail-biting bouts that the series has become known for.
Stages adopt familiar themes from the series, from the neon-soaked labs of Plague Knight to the gold-laden walls of King Knight's future abode. Revisiting these areas is initially welcoming--a trip back to a familiar world--and does make some of the newer stages stand out more, given that you're not seeing them for potentially the fourth time like with the returning ones. King of Cards often feels like a celebration of Shovel Knight and its world, but it can at times feel overindulgent in its return to boss fights and stages you may have experienced multiple times already. While stages are altered enough to feel different beyond their visual makeup to account for King Knight's new moves, boss fights can feel much easier given that their attack patterns and abilities haven't really changed since their first appearance in the original Shovel Knight.
King Knight's own move set does make combat and platforming feel fresh, though, while also feeling faithful to the original flow of Shovel Knight. His standard attack is a horizontal dash and bash, flinging you into the air on contact with an enemy or a wall. When launched into the air, King Knight pirouettes into a dangerous spin, letting you hop between enemies while damaging them until you hit the ground again. It's reminiscent of Shovel Knight's vertical attack without the added benefit of choosing when you can enact it. Instead you have to carefully connect multiple dashes with reactive movements in the air that keep the chain going for the best effect, studying enemies' various attack patterns to pick the right moment to engage and the best window to get out. It gives combat a much quicker pace than any other previous protagonist, and retains the satisfaction of it despite the recycled enemies.
This puts a different spin on platforming, with each stage being suitably designed to challenge your understanding of King Knight's unique movement. While Specter Knight was able to wall jump and glide through lanterns, King Knight feels more restrained. Most walls can be dashed into to initiate a higher jump, but levels will routinely shake things up with elements that both restrict and change the way you perform this simple action. Slippery, ice-slicked platforms add a dangerous momentum to each of your landings, for example, while walls overgrown with vines prevent you from jumping against them from certain angles. Learning when you can chain together dashes and jumps and using the opportune positioning of enemies to bounce between long stretches of dangerous falls feels great. The designs of each stage make you feel like you're constantly on the brink of failure, but are forgiving enough to make each attempt feel fair. It's incredibly rewarding to push past each of King of Cards' challenging platforming gauntlets, and the varied level design makes consistent use of your limited movement in inventive ways.
King of Cards features many, many stages for you to tackle, and scratches the same sort of itch previous entries in the series have. But it also features an entirely new avenue of play in Joustus. Central to King Knight's quest is a card game that has captivated the land, filling taverns in each of the game's unique areas with challenging opponents. In Joustus, you use a deck of 16 cards to strategically move cards you've placed on a board onto green gems. Once the board is full and a player can no longer make a move, the player with the most cards on the gems on the board wins. Unlike card games such as Hearthstone or Gwent, Jousts feels more akin to strategic games like Go. It's less about individual card abilities and more about using specific cards to push around ones on the board, where thinking three steps ahead of your opponent and anticipating how they might affect the board is paramount to victory.
Vendors and beaten opponents will reward you with cards to build your deck, with their unique abilities adding to the complexity of the matches that follow. Initially, cards are inscribed with arrows that indicate directions that can push others on the board, but it doesn't take long for them to include effects that let you destroy other cards, alter their player allegiance, or push them much further than the standard single square. It takes some time to adjust to the rhythm that Joustus demands, especially when thinking about how your cards on the board can be moved around into inescapable areas. But it's a challenging side activity that acts as a rewarding respite from the demanding platforming, balancing the overall pacing of King of Cards.
Standard progression isn't gated by Joustus if you choose not to engage with the card game at all, despite the rewards attached to them. Vendors even offer cheats that turn each Joustus game into a trivial affair, letting you reap the rewards without needing to engage with deck construction and card collection if you're just here for standard Shovel Knight fare. It's easy enough to ignore the cheats if you want to feel the rush of a strategically demanding game of Joustus, but not obscure enough to miss if you're just looking for an easy way out.
Whether you're challenging foes at a table in a tavern or bashing them into oblivion with your scepter, King of Cards is like comfort food if you already have a taste for Shovel Knight. It doesn't stray from its established formula and often sticks closer to the format of the first game in the series rather than the more experimental expansions that came after it. And while its well-balanced platforming and demanding combat are a treat, its use of existing boss fights and enemies with little to no change in their mechanics saps some of the surprise out of these exciting encounters. It's been a persistent issue in each of Shovel Knight's expansions, but the King of Cards' attention to level design and deeply engrossing gameplay do help mask it better than before. If this is meant to be a farewell to Shovel Knight's first adventure, it goes off with all the spectacle and confetti it deserves.
If you didn't see it when it leaked a few days ago, today's PlayStation State of Play livestream officially debuted the latest Kingdom Hearts III Re:Mind trailer, and boy does it look like a substantial amount of content. For those who felt Kingdom Hearts III was missing some key elements like Final Fantasy characters or giving Kairi time to shine in her arc, it looks like Square Enix heard your feedback loud and clear.
In the trailer, Sora reinforces that "hearts are all connected" and he must "trace the connection." In it, we see Final Fantasy characters like Squall, Yuffie, and Aerith helping Riku who has been searching for Sora. The trailer then cuts to some action sequences, showing a multitude of characters in battle, from Xion to Kairi. It appears this entry will provide some closure on the final event regarding Sora and Kairi, which was left cryptic. Many fans expressed disappointment of Kairi not having a larger role after prior games built up her involvement, revealing her as a keyblade wielder. The new footage teases some key story beats, but ends with the ultimate cliffhanger: "Is any of this for real or not?" With Kingdom Hearts, you never really can tell...
Lastly, we finally got firm confirmation on a release date of January 23 on PS4 and February 25 on Xbox One, so get your playthroughs in before then as this looks to be more of an expansion than short DLC. Pre-orders are also now open with two versions. The regular version is $29.99, while the other includes 19 footage tracks from the World of Tres – Orchestra concert for $39.99.
Watch the trailer yourself if you haven't already to see what all the fuss is about.
It's been some time since the explosive events of Haven Point, and even longer since Sean and Daniel Diaz's journey first began in Seattle, but the end of Life Is Strange 2 has finally arrived, and with it a satisfying conclusion to the tumultuous and emotional story we've witnessed thus far. Episode 5 abandons the goofy villains and cliches of Episode 4 and reconnects us with what makes Life is Strange 2 work best: nuanced characters, deep relationships, and a narrative that is unafraid to show the ugly side of present-day America while still spending plenty of time unearthing the beauty that lies beneath.
No matter what kind of relationship you've built between Sean and Daniel so far, the game kicks off with the two camping out under the stars in Arizona, during which Sean says to Daniel, "I love you no matter what happens, okay?" This scene illustrates a significant strength of the series which has carried through from Episode 1--while you can guide Sean's choices and morality and the impact that has on his little brother, no choice you make will change the love they have for each other. Even a low-morality Sean with a penchant for stealing who swears like a sailor will still love Daniel and protect him at all costs. The stellar performances delivered by each of the brothers continue to make their connection believable and their sibling affection palpably relatable.
Sean's spot-on characterization makes him a fantastic conduit to understanding the beauty in the characters you meet, the pain in the vile circumstances he so often finds himself in, and the overwhelming adoration he has for his brother. You love Daniel because Sean does, do your best to trust your estranged mother because Sean does, and feel palpable terror in the face of the worst of America because Sean does. His sense of self remains intrinsic to any version of his character and that is vital to your ability to empathize with him. As for the impact you can have, Daniel's personality can shift depending on how you've treated him and the choices you've made in previous episodes. He will have increased or decreased morality, and that trait will drastically change how he acts in the dramatic final moments of the series. As a result, your ending to the story will likely feel earned and satisfyingly in line with the events in your journey.
The inclusion of Sean and Daniel's mother is explored in more depth and with greater nuance than in Episode 4, where her appearance was overshadowed by the tonally inconsistent plot. The layers of her character and preference for isolation are cleverly mirrored by the first major location you explore in Episode 5, called Away, a community of people who have shunned society in favour of a self-sufficient life in the desert. The strength of Life is Strange 2's writing buoys up its new characters in the final episode, most of whom feel complex and well rounded. You meet a middle-aged gay couple whose familes' homophobia has driven them to a quieter life outside the city, a familiar face from Life is Strange 1 who gets the chance to exhibit the growth they appeared capable of in the previous series, and Diego and Carla, a Mexican man and his pregnant wife trying to build a better life by immigrating to America.
The latter example in particular is a testament to another of Life is Strange 2's greatest strengths: its willingness to ask complicated questions, amplify marginalized voices, and attempt to explore the complicated sociopolitical climate of present-day America. This difficult undertaking isn't always executed flawlessly, and some of the more extreme representations of xenophobic Americans can come off a little on-the-nose. But the larger themes of politics, racism, and differing perspectives as a result of ethnicity and privilege are effective due to the nuance and believability behind Episode 5's characters. Because of this, it's the quieter moments that deliver the themes most effectively, such as when the Diaz brothers arrive at the Mexican border and Daniel asks if there is also a towering border wall between America and Canada. Or when a particularly tense moment in the game is broken up by Sean meeting Carla and Diego, who engage with Sean entirely in Spanish and explain why they're so desperate to flee Mexico to provide a better life for their child.
However, some interactions in Episode 5 remain a little too hard to swallow. An entire encampment of social outcasts deciding they aren't phased by a 10-year-old with superpowers is unlikely, and sometimes otherwise intelligent characters seem to have inconsistent lapses in judgment or logic. That said, ignoring the social impact of Daniel's powers lets the plot to move forward without belabouring well-trodden ground, which returns the focus to the characters whose stories often paint a relatable picture of people's attempt to do right by others as they do right by themselves.
The impact of Episode 5's interactivity also falls flat in some places. Despite some heart-pounding events late in the game, the use of Daniel's powers doesn't amount to much as a mechanic. While awe-inspiring to behold in a cutscene, there is little weight behind actually using them. You mostly point at very clearly highlighted interactables and watching Daniel unleash his power on them. Save for a section with some variable choices late in the game, this is almost always too simplistic, as was the case in previous episodes, making the act of using Daniel's powers feel less exciting than it should, even in the emotionally-charged final moments.
The multiple endings to the series are significantly different and largely reflected how I had interacted with Daniel in both of my playthroughs. Both endings I reached were truly satisfying in their own way, and in the case of my main playthrough, heart-wrenchingly sad. There are no easy answers which feels appropriate, but there is positivity to be found in each possible conclusion. Coming to the realization that there is unlikely to be a purely happy ending for the Diaz brothers is disheartening, but it works to solidify the thematic undercurrents of Life is Strange 2's story--the troubled state of the current sociopolitical climate, identity, brotherhood, and what it means to be American.
Saying goodbye to the Diaz brothers is as difficult as it was to leave Chloe and Max in the original Life Is Strange, which is a testament to the extraordinary strength of the game's character building. Though the story of the Diaz brothers arrives at some kind of ending, the larger implications of the story and its politically-charged themes raise more questions than they can possibly hope to answer, though to even ask them feels like an admirable feat. As the game itself states within the blog of a gone-but-not-forgotten ally from Episode 1, "It's not a happy ending, but maybe it can be a hopeful one."
Before it made games that just dropped the pretense altogether and used plastic instruments, Harmonix was already the master at turning your average, run-of-the-mill controller into an instrument of musical chaos in Frequency and Amplitude. That same ethos is the engine driving Audica, which seeks to do the same for VR motion controllers. It's a game with a killer idea, but the execution is just short of the mark.
At its core, Audica is a VR shooting gallery that makes music. In a world where stylishly slicing boxes with lightsabers is the current gold standard for rhythm games, stylishly making music with blasters was pretty much the logical--even welcome--next step on paper. Your instruments are two neon laser tag guns. Colored targets fly toward you to line up with a circle on a specific beat in a song, and your job is to shoot that target on the beat with the correct colored gun for the maximum amount of points. The game does throw curveballs at you--some targets require you to hold your gun sideways, for example. But, by and large, Audica's premise is simple: make music with laser pistols. Despite this simplicity, though, making beats with bullets feels great in Audica.
Your lasers feel appropriately futuristic; by default, they're cool, reflective cannons with mirrored blades attached to the barrel that convey a sense of power. That feeling of power is all the more pronounced once you start firing away at targets and get in sync with the ebb and flow of a song's note pattern. Every successful hit generates a slick, track-specific "thwap!" that punctuates every note.
If, for whatever reason, the default sound on a track doesn't work for you, you do get the option to customize the effect. That same level of customization carries over to the calibration options, with some extremely user-friendly settings to account for your sense of rhythm or lack thereof. That's even more crucial in virtual reality, and Audica aces it, weaving the calibration tools in with the beat and targeting tutorials rather elegantly before you even start the game proper. Even with the calibration, the game is extremely forgiving when it comes to perfectly hitting a target dead center, though perfect aim does help achieve the best possible scores on a song. Still, just jumping into a track and firing at will is a blast because Audica is so approachable.
Audica's big, pervasive caveat, however, is that you better like fast-paced, thumping EDM from the last five years, because there's really nothing else in the game. Constricting the pool of music causes all of the tracks to bleed together after long sessions. The DLC helps, bringing some bigger star power and at least some element of chill to the soundtrack with songs like Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" and Billie Eilish's "bad guy," but these are also some of the trickiest songs in the game, even at lower difficulties. More than anything, those tracks are a perfect showcase of how versatile the note charting and game design can be given a bigger musical palette to work from, and highlight just how much less of that creativity gets a spotlight in the main tracklist.
Also, even by rhythm game standards, Audica is too tricky for its own good. Far too often, notes are there to taunt, trip up, and challenge instead of letting you revel in the music being played. Audica's challenges often come from deliberately destroying your groove, creating off moments that don't feel like you're supposed to get in sync with the music being created by your shots and swipes. It feels like trying to win a dance competition, and every few seconds, someone tosses an orange at your head.
In this case, that orange can take the form of frequent errant notes, targets outside your field of view, or modifiers that you can't turn off, many of which ask the unnatural--a certain modifier that requires you move your arms an arbitrary amount during the song is probably the most egregious of them. On Advanced and Expert modes, you still get a wide berth to hit the targets anywhere, but it doesn't matter if those targets appear off the beat and ask more of you than responding to the rhythm. When the game isn't getting in its own way--and the note patterns are complex, but follow a certain rhythmic logic--it does feel empowering, like you're in a breezy, futuristic version of Baby Driver. In particular, tracks like KD/A's "Pop Stars" that flit back and forth between poppy melodies and impactful hip-hop line deliveries lend themselves extremely well to punctuating every note with a pull of the trigger. But this isn’t sustained across all of Audica's tracks. Obstacles are far too arbitrary too often for that.
Mostly, though, you just can't help but get the feeling of playing a grand experiment, and it's a shame that Audica doesn't land as well as Harmonix's other rhythm games. There's a lot that's simply, innately cool about Audica's concept, the very idea of using weapons to make music, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency, the enjoyment dries up faster than it should.
Shenmue III is an anomaly, a game that feels like it doesn't really exist. It's as though it was beamed here from a parallel universe where the Dreamcast was an ongoing success and early-aughts game design remained the norm decades later. The truth is much more banal, of course: It's the result of a (sometimes rocky) crowdfunding campaign and the hopes and dreams of a fervent fanbase. Unfortunately, while it's fascinating as a weird curiosity from a long-gone era of gaming, it's simply not that fun to actually play.
Shenmue III picks up right where the last game left off--as though 18 years haven't passed since players wrapped up Ryo Hazuki's last adventure--resolving Shenmue II's cliffhanger in a way that's surprisingly unexciting after such a long stretch. Once that's over with, Shenmue III's story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it's Shenmue.
In terms of setting, Shenmue III succeeds quite admirably in making the world pleasant to be in. There are some gorgeous vistas both in and outside of Bailu village, making the day-to-day strolls warm and inviting. The village itself is a charming setting, too; it's filled with interesting landmarks that give it character, like a massive sunflower garden and a small collection of gambling facilities on the riverbed. Niaowu, the port city where the game's latter half takes place, also feels like a real and engaging place, with the massive variety of shops you'd expect from a trading city on the water. The characters who live in these places also give them a nice flavor; NPCs all look distinct, have individual quirks and personalities, and are easy to recognize--which is nice when you have to find and talk to specific people in the absence of quest markers.
Shenmue III retains a lot of old favorite activities from previous titles--collecting capsule toys, gambling with games like Lucky Hit and turtle races, simple arcade mini-games like whack-a-mole, and the all-important Shenmue staple of forklifting--while also introducing a handful of new activities. You can wander around the countryside looking for herbs, selling and trading sets for money and valuable scrolls that teach Ryo new attacks, or you can kill a few hours fishing and hope your day's catch will net you some money and a cool prize. If you need some fast cash, you can do manual labor and chop wood in a brief minigame. And if self-improvement is your goal, there's always spots to train and raise your martial arts proficiency.
Exploring all of the side activities and enjoying the atmosphere of the locations in Shenmue III is fun, but it highlights one of the game's biggest problems: How utterly boring and unengaging the main story is. Ryo is still a dull-as-dishwater character who we're told is motivated by a sense of vengeance and justice, but his wooden dialogue and complete lack of a personality totally undermine any sense of urgency or intrigue this ongoing martial-arts drama might have. It doesn't help that the main plot moves like molasses, often requiring repeated, tedious wandering and interaction to find the character or place you need to get a tiny sliver of information that moves the plot along ever-so-slightly and unnaturally gating you off from places.
For example, It takes hours to find a pair of thugs at the game's beginning that you probably could have chased down in minutes if you were allowed to enter the area they're in from the get-go. Usually games gate off areas in order to better pace out the narrative they're trying to tell, but nothing interesting happens in the hours between the game's beginning and the confrontation with the thugs. I found myself frequently opting to do everything except what I needed to do to advance the story, not because the mini-games were particularly amazing (though they are quite satisfying), but simply because the story itself was so unengaging that I preferred to spend my time doing practically anything else instead of moving it along.
It's not just the pacing of Shenmue III that's a holdover from the Dreamcast era, either. There's all sorts of mechanics that, seen through a modern lens, are downright nonsensical and only serve to make the game less fun. For example, there's the stamina system: Ryo has a stamina bar that continuously drains even if he does so much as stands around, falling significantly faster if you choose to do activities like training, working, or even just running to get to a place more quickly (since fast travel is limited). Ryo needs to eat constantly in order to refill it throughout the day, and woe be to you if you stumble into a fight with less-than-ideal stamina, since it doubles as your life bar. In a game where exploration is a focus, it's a baffling mechanic that only frustrates.
Then there's the dialogue, which is every bit as unnatural and awkward as it was in previous games. If for some reason you find yourself in a conversation you didn't want to be in, you can't just cancel or even button-mash out of it--you're going to have to listen to someone babble on until Ryo clumsily apologizes for bothering them and escapes. Since you're often in situations where you have to bother everyone you see to find a person with the info you need, you're going to hear a lot of pointless blather. While there are some fun characters with cute personality quirks that are entertaining to engage with, a lot of the dialogue seems like banal filler meant to make conversation seem substantial when it really isn't.
The worst element of Shenmue, however, continues to be the combat, which is every bit as clunky and unsatisfying as it was back in the Dreamcast days. You're forced into an awkward angle where it's hard to see everything around you (which is awful when you have more than one opponent), the button combinations needed to perform various skills don't flow together well, and it simply feels laggy and unresponsive as a whole. You can "cheat" somewhat and simply do training exercises to level up your strength and stamina if you want to struggle a bit less with fighting, but it still doesn't serve to make the combat itself any more fun.
Shenmue III has its moments. It delivers on the promise of creating interesting and engaging new environments for Ryo and friends to explore and play around in. Yet, I can't help but think that the game's dogged determination to retain the same "feel" of its Dreamcast ancestors at any cost hurts it immensely. The creative team seems determined to not move anything forward substantially when it comes to Shenmue--including the story, which ends on yet another unfinished cliffhanger. Shenmue III is certainly an interesting game thrown out of time, but that doesn't mean that it's always enjoyable to play.
Two weeks ago, Frontier Developments revealed a new expansion to its 2018 dino-park simulator Jurassic World Evolution. The expansion, Return to Jurassic Park, is set to let players experiment with fixing the problems of the original dinosaur park from the hit '90s films. I traveled to Frontier Developments to get my hands on the expansion and learn just how ambitious of a project this is.
To this point, Jurassic World Evolution has seen several post-launch packs, including three premium DLC drops, seven dinosaur packs, and seven free updates. However, all of those additions took place within the modern Jurassic World.
Return to Jurassic Park does just what its name says, giving players the keys to the iconic Jurassic Park gate in hopes that you can fix the problems from the first film and right the ship on the doomed theme park. In addition to introducing an all-new storyline comprised of seven narrative-based missions, Return to Jurassic Park brings back original cast members Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum to reprise the roles of Dr. Alan Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, and Dr. Ian Malcolm respectively.
"[Recruiting the original actors] turned out to be relatively simple," game director Michael Brookes says. "The hardest part was getting them all scheduled so we could get them all recorded in time. But actually, though, they seemed quite on board. Jeff we'd worked with before anyway, but Laura and Sam seemed quite keen to get involved and reprise their roles. They're such distinctive characters in their own right, and bringing them into a game was good."
Since Return to Jurassic Park takes place immediately after the events of the first Jurassic Park film, the aesthetics are different from that of the Jurassic World theme used in the base game. Certain dinosaurs have new models, while others have new skins that look like the ones from the 1993 film. The various structures you put in place also more closely resemble the ones from the first film. These visual changes are also available to use in all challenges and the sandbox mode from the base game using '93 Mode.
"Obviously we were fans of the original films and the aesthetics between the two [eras] were very different," Brookes says. "It's something we've seen a lot from the fans as well; they love the original films and they've wanted to recreate Jurassic Park, but with them looking so different, you obviously can't do that to the same degree. Part of the original thinking was to go back in time and do Jurassic Park, and that's what we set to do with this."
Jurassic Park is less commercialized than Jurassic World, meaning you have new variables to consider. For instance, viewing galleries for patrons are gone, as is the monorail, but in their place are tours and a helipad. Also, while you can certainly put up shops to keep customers happy, there's no need to.
When I finally got my hands on the upcoming expansion, I was able to play through Mission 1 and Mission 6 to get an idea of what players will be tasked to do in order to try and fix Jurassic Park. Each mission starts with voiced dialogue between the main characters from the films. While we heard Goldblum step back into the role of Ian Malcolm in the base game, hearing him go back and forth with Dern and Neill's characters is a treat.
The first mission requires me to restore functionality of the park's various operations. I do this by building a ranger base and assigning them various repair tasks. After things are up and running again, I queue up tasks for the rangers (like capturing escaped Raptors) and set research of some fancy new electric fences in motion while I manually repair the damaged security fences. This mission is short, but conveys the theme of helping the troubled theme park reach its full potential.
While the first mission took very little time, the sixth mission was lengthy thanks to several required excursions and egg-hatching missions. My first mission is to add a new species of dino to the park, namely the Compsognathus. You may remember these little guys as the ones who took out poor Dieter in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This time it'll probably go better, right? I research the Compsognathus and send an expedition team out to scour for DNA for the Compies. This effort takes multiple expeditions spread over a long time. While this is taking place, I perform general upkeep around the park, using rangers to refill dinosaur feeders and medicate sick creatures. Additionally, side missions, like getting a certain number of guests in the park or achieving a particular park rating, pop up to grant you monetary rewards if you're able to complete them.
At long last, I acquire 75 percent genome for the Compies and begin the process of hatching them. As I wait for the eggs to hatch, I build an enclosure for them, complete with carnivore feeding platforms and a small pond for them to drink from. As they begin hatching, I deliver them to their newly built pen and the mission continues.
The next step in the mission is to build an aviary and fill it with Pteranodons. These aerial reptiles are a major attraction for patrons, so if I want to get my numbers up, I need some good DNA samples to work with. That means it's back to the expedition. The slow burn gives me more time to address things around the park; I'm trying to get my guest numbers up, so I add some more restrooms, new shops, and lower some prices of the souvenirs. I don't notice any influx in the numbers, but once the aviary construction is complete and the first Pteranodons take flight, the numbers start creeping up. I achieve the numbers the side mission gave me thanks to my new flying friends, but I'll need to be careful going forward; storms can damage the aviary and let the dangerous creatures out.
For those who don't plan on spending more money on Jurassic World Evolution, Frontier is readying the next batch of free content. In addition to restrooms (which customers will now need) that can be placed throughout the park, your ranger teams can now be taken out if they're put in dangerous situations. I witnessed this firsthand while waiting for an expedition to complete during the Pteranodon mission. I sent a ranger team out to try and contain an outbreak of Avian Influenza among the dinosaurs, only to be utterly annihilated by an adjacent beast. While rangers can fire flares to distract the aggressive dinosaurs, I guess this team didn't get the memo, and they paid dearly for it. I had to pay to hire an entirely new team of rangers to replace them and pick up where the dearly departed squad left off.
Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park hits PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC December 10 for $20.
It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called "Progress." Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.
It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series--created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.
Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.
In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not--the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.
Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.
The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.
Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.
Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.
The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, "just the facts, ma’am" set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.
Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin's opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.
Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.
What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.
Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society--and by implication, modern America--but they're just that, a gesture. There's no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they're just set dressing.
It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.
Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it's a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you'll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.
The Battletoads series was initially created to rival the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade-style beat ’em-up games of the late ’80s and early ’90s. While the four brotherly turtles have evolved and remained in the mainstream consciousness through various TV shows, movies, and video games of varying quality, the Battletoads have all but vanished. However, after years of teases from Xbox, the Battletoads finally reemerged at E3 2019.
For better and for worse, Battletoads plays a lot like the games that began the franchise. The three toads, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, can and will jump right into any confrontation without a second’s thought. Volleying enemies between the three brothers is the highlight of my experience with Battletoads, as the enemies bounce around the screen like delightful pinballs. You can attack in a few different ways, but I love holding down a button and unleashing a charged morphing attack – Rash’s foot grows enormous as he kicks, while Pimple’s hulking physique morphs to resemble a train as he plows through the enemies before him.
However, as I play through the various encounters, it becomes evident that the side-scrolling beat ‘em-up genre has yet to make the transition to the modern age. Sure, the graphics look better and the controls are a bit smoother, but the encounters all feature a tinge of “been there, done that,” which makes sense since you’re battling waves upon waves of the same three or four enemies with a limited moveset for the entire level. The encounters all blur together, with little to set them apart from one another aside from an occasional new enemy type.
Thankfully, a boss battle breaks up the stage’s slightly monotonous action. Porkshank is such a tank of an enemy that he’s invulnerable to attack until you let him wear himself out with his own flurry of punches. However, I learn the hard way that his size isn’t just for show when I dodge a bit too late and he takes out a considerable amount of my health with one combination. If this giant pig isn’t enough of a problem, he has the constant support of minion characters as well. However, with a little persistence and a lot of timing, we finally take down Porkshank and move on to a hoverbike stage.
Players of the original Battletoads games likely have the hoverbike etched into their memories due to the fast-paced and punishing nature. While hoverbike stages are no longer side-scrolling like they were in the 8-bit era, they aren’t exactly a walk in the park. The camera now swings behind your bikes, giving you an oncoming view of the obstacles and pitfalls. With plenty of experience with racing games, I figured this would be a breeze. However, thanks to a back-breaking sense of speed and an enormous collection of offset barriers, jumps, and pits, my poor toad’s bike erupts into flames more times than I’d like to admit.
Fans have been clamoring for the Battletoad brothers to return following their lengthy hiatus. While I walked away from my hands-on time not completely sold on this revitalization, I’m glad to have these icons back in action.
For decades, the Microsoft Flight Simulator series has given aviation enthusiasts a way to get their virtual wings. However, with more than 13 years since the most recent entry, would-be pilots haven’t had the mainstay series to rely on. Thankfully, Microsoft Flight Simulator is back with a host of innovative features to give virtual pilots the most ambitious flight-simulation software ever created.
As I sit into the cockpit of my virtual plane (a gaming chair in front of a desk with an advanced yoke system, complete with a throttle panel to my right and rudder panels at my feet), I’m loaded into a mid-flight instance over the gorgeous city of Naples, Italy. Suddenly appearing in the cockpit, I feel a brief sense of nervousness as I grip the control wheel. Looking around the iconic city, I’m stunned by how gorgeous everything looks. The distinct architecture of the seaside Italian city passes beneath my aircraft with photorealistic visuals. Though I’m responsible for keeping the small plane airborne, I can’t take my eyes off the city beneath me.
No matter where you choose to fly – and you can choose anywhere on the planet – the cities, landscapes, and natural landmarks are presented in photorealism. This is thanks to advanced photogrammetry that leverages data and textures from Microsoft’s Bing to create 3D models of every building, tree, and mountain on Earth. The team has to go in and make sure everything looks good (some trees and unique buildings like Seattle’s Space Needle don’t capture from satellite well), but the advanced machine learning used in this process greatly lowers the number of human hours put into creating this ultra-realistic planet. Then, it streams to your machine using Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology. Because of this, you can circumnavigate a photorealistic globe in a single session – if you have enough fuel.
The team isn’t stopping there, however, as other real-time data helps deliver an even more authentic experience. As I continue flying over Naples, we change the weather mode in the environment. The initial load featured calm weather and clear skies. However, by adjusting one option, I’m suddenly experiencing the weather in Naples in real time; I guess it was a pretty windy morning in southern Italy. From there, I toggle to different cloud settings, various times of day, and even a low-visibility rainstorm where I must rely on my instruments. The team is also looking into real-time tracking of animal migrations, natural disasters, and even car traffic on the ground.
In addition, Microsoft Flight Simulator has the power to track real-world flight traffic using transponder signals. “We know where every airplane is, and we actually render it in real time,” says Microsoft’s Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator. “We [also] have A.I.-driven planes, and then everything from the air-traffic controller gets a slot. The interaction between us and the real world’s traffic is kind of complicated. You have options: You can either fly with just A.I. traffic and we control everything, or you fly with just real-world traffic. And then, the really hard one is the blend. We’re still working on that! It’s hard!”
After enjoying the scenery of Naples for a while, I decide to try and land at Naples International Airport. After several botched approaches, I finally give myself a wide enough radius and begin descending toward the runway. As I get closer, I rely more on lowering my throttle and using the aircraft’s flaps to create drag than actually pointing the control wheel toward the ground. Keeping things steady as I get closer to the ground is difficult, as the slightest motion could cause me to roll too far to one side. After some gentle corrections on the way to the ground, I finally land. It’s a rough landing for sure, but I’m safe. Now that I’m on the ground, I press both feet into the rudders beneath the desk to bring the plane to a stop.
My next session takes me to the United States at Renton Municipal Airport near Microsoft’s offices just outside of Seattle. In this session, I’m already on the ground, but that’s not where I want to be. I pull up to the start of the runway and put the plane into full throttle. As I reach takeoff speed, I slowly pull back on the yoke and ascend to cruising altitude. Using my instruments, I easily reach the skies over Seattle. However, my most difficult challenge awaits.
The final session takes me to Courchevel Altiport, one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Located in the French Alps, getting a perfect approach is important since you have little room for do-overs. In addition, the airport has a sloped runway, meaning you have to land at an incline rather than a flat surface. This means that you must pull the nose up at the last moment to land smoothly. While I lower the throttle too much on my first approach and crash into the nearby trees, for my second attempt I coast in towards a safe landing, only to veer slightly off course when I pull the nose up and land a bit rough. However, it was such a challenging scenario, I’ll take the rough landing.
While I walked away from my time with Microsoft Flight Simulator impressed, you’ll need to make a serious investment into your hardware in order to enjoy it the way I did; the yoke system bundle I played on currently retails just over $300. It’s all but certain that playing on a keyboard or controller would feel substantially less immersive, but those who are there for the thrill of exploring the planet from the point-of-view of birds can still do so without the fancy peripherals.
With so much amazing technology at work, Microsoft Flight Simulator is infinitely ambitious, and if what I experienced with my hands-on time is any indication, aspiring pilots and newcomers should be excited to take to this sky in the series’ upcoming return.