Marvel's popularity has grown exponentially in the 10 years since Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was first released, as forays into shared universes in both film and TV have propelled the company to the forefront of pop culture relevance. Previously obscure characters such as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther have risen to prominence thanks to appearances in movies, becoming household names, while new characters like Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Gwen have made their debuts in the vibrant pages of comic books. The stacked roster in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order reflects the past 10 years of Marvel's history, assembling a cast of beloved characters, both old and new, that extends its reach into almost every corner of the cosmos. The diversity of Ultimate Alliance's playable characters has always been the series' strongest aspect, and that remains true in Ultimate Alliance 3, where our favorite heroes team up for an enjoyable adventure brimming with synergized action.
Much like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 is an isometric action-RPG, hack-and-slash hybrid featuring four playable characters at any one time that you can switch between on the fly. There are a couple of left-field character inclusions counted amongst its comprehensive roster, like the monster-hunting Elsa Bloodstone and The Inhumans' Crystal, but it's an otherwise familiar list of names that features everyone from Hawkeye and Doctor Strange to Iron Man and Thor. Somewhat predictably, the plot revolves around the Infinity Stones after a Guardians of the Galaxy-related mishap scatters them across the Earth and into the hands of the evil-doers in Marvel's rogues' gallery.
Thanos and his ruthless Black Order play their part, but the story is less Marvel Cinematic Universe and more Saturday morning cartoon. That works in the game's favor, and the light-hearted writing and enthusiastic voice acting carry a narrative that does as much as it can with so many characters vying for screen time. There are fun one-liners, and the characters feel true to the ones we know, with their iterations pulling from the MCU, comics, and TV. It also helps that this isn't simply a rehash of well-trodden ground, despite the presence of many common elements. Instead, Ultimate Alliance 3 tells an original tale that takes some inspiration from 1991's The Infinity Gauntlet, while also encompassing various aspects of Marvel's films, comic books, and TV shows to create something of its own.
You only need to glance at the roster to see how Ultimate Alliance 3 pulls from every eclectic branch of the Marvel machine. Costumes and character designs are judiciously plucked from numerous sources--all homogenized by a uniform comic book-inspired art style that's full of color. The most important thing about these characters, however, is how each of them feels to play. Each hero has light and heavy attacks that can unleash various combos, as well as four super abilities that are gradually unlocked as each character levels up. There's also a block that negates some damage and a handy roll for dodging out of danger. Simple stuff. What elevates Ultimate Alliance 3's combat is the variety inherent to each of its heroes and the numerous ways in which they work in tandem. Take someone like Captain America, for example, who's all about punching enemies in the face and following up with a vibranium shield to the ribs. He plays a lot differently to a ranged character like Star-Lord, who is ideally suited to fighting from a distance with his dual elemental pistols and flight-enabling jet boots. The differences aren't just restricted to each hero's choice of weaponry or traversal, either; the Hulk is a lumbering force of nature, Wolverine strikes with quick and agile ferocity, and myriad damage types like piercing, ethereal, fire, and ice differentiate each character even further.
Then there are the abilities that tap into every hero's spate of superpowers. An energy meter governs how often you can let loose with these snazzy attacks, but Ultimate Alliance 3 is fairly generous about replenishing any lost energy in rapid fashion. This is important because using these abilities with abandon and combining them with others is a ton of fun. The basic light/heavy combat is satisfying on its own. There's a lot of button mashing, but fights can get pretty hectic when enemy projectiles are bouncing all over the screen, so you still need to be wary of your positioning and be able to avoid danger. Abilities add another layer, letting you blast away a crowd of goons with a wrecking ball comprised of Spider-Man's webs, spin Mjolnir around in a deadly electrified circle, or mow down anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of Ghost Rider's hellfire bike.
Proximity to teammates also allows you to combine certain abilities with others to unleash devastating synergy attacks that amplify their damage output, whether it's Iron Man reflecting his beam off Captain America's shield or Deadpool tossing a deluge of grenades as Storm shoots a bolt of lightning out of her fingertips. Dole out enough punishment and you can activate a big Alliance Extreme attack that triggers all four of your character's synergy attacks at once, filling the screen with a vivid cascade of particle effects, explosions, and ever-increasing damage numbers. The frame rate can take a hit during these moments, but you're just watching the fireworks at that point, so it isn't really an issue in gameplay.
The diversity of Ultimate Alliance's playable characters has always been the series' strongest aspect, and that remains true in Ultimate Alliance 3, where our favorite heroes team up for an enjoyable adventure brimming with synergized action
The level design is fairly straightforward, funneling you down corridors and into more open areas with little deviation. This does, however, lend itself to a sense of forward momentum as you're constantly encountering new foes to fight. The only thing that slows it down are some terribly dull puzzles that are fortunately few and far between, revolving around pressing levers and pushing boxes, and a camera that has a tendency to get stuck behind objects or jitter up and down when not completely stuck. This is an occasional problem during combat when you're momentarily blind to enemy attacks, but it can be an annoyance when simply traversing as well.
It's a shame you can't just forget the camera is even there because each level takes place in a new location and the environments on show are fantastically varied. Dimension-hopping allows the action to venture away from Earth and into some of Marvel's more outlandish settings as you barrel towards the end credits, and Ultimate Alliance 3 makes good use of the sheer number of enemy factions that exist in the Marvel universe. Within the first couple of hours you'll brawl your way through The Raft and tangle with Spider-Man's nemeses before joining Daredevil and Iron Fist in a battle against The Hand's ninja army. This makes for a disparate mix of enemy types and aesthetics that keeps each level feeling fresh, and the same can be said of the plethora of boss fights you regularly encounter, too.
Facing off against the likes of Green Goblin, Dormammu, and Ultron can be quite challenging by yourself on the default difficulty level. Fortunately, there's a surprising amount of depth when it comes to upgrading each hero. Aside from accumulating XP to unlock more abilities, you can also spend currency to enhance each of their powers, reducing the energy cost or improving their potency. There's also a sprawling hexagonal skill tree that allows you to purchase stat increases that are applied to every hero on the roster, whether you're improving their strength, vitality, and resilience or unlocking various offensive and defensive buffs. Meanwhile, ISO-8 crystals give you the opportunity to apply additional bonuses to specific heroes. It's minute stuff like increasing health or decreasing damage under certain conditions, but it makes a difference and gives you a degree of customization that can be used to turn the tide of battle--and that's without even mentioning the importance of your chosen team's makeup.
Picking heroes that work well together applies various team bonuses that can further enhance their stats. This is based on tangibles like their team affiliation, intelligence, agility, and so on. You could assemble a team of the original Avengers, the X-Men, Defenders, or Midnight Sons and see an increase in particular stats that will also take into account whether any of the heroes have shared traits like "wisecracking warrior" or "anti-hero." Maybe you want to compile a team of web-slingers, Marvel royalty, or one that encompasses the women of Marvel. You have the opportunity to recreate canon teams or mix and match to create your own based on which bonuses are applied and how they can benefit you.
The only problem with all of this is that heroes only level up when you use them. Increases in strength, vitality and other similar skills are applied to everyone, but as you reach the latter half of the campaign, the lack of abilities, their upgrades, and the capability to equip multiple ISO-8s is keenly felt in your lower-level heroes, which means you end up neglecting most of the roster because they just aren't powerful enough. The workaround for this comes in the shape of XP boosts you can discover within levels and by completing optional Infinity Rifts that task you with repeating modified boss fights and challenges to earn different rewards. Getting enough XP boosts can be a long, grindy process, though, and that's just to get enough to significantly level up a single character. The diversity of Ultimate Alliance 3's roster is one of its core pillars, so feeling restricted to only using a few heroes during its final hours is a glaring disappointment.
More so than its predecessors, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order excels because of its character diversity and the ways its disparate heroes work together. For this reason alone it's an ideal co-op game, whether you're playing with another friend in the same room or with three friends online, but the AI more than holds its own if you're playing alone, too. It falters in places, but there's still nothing quite like the Ultimate Alliance series, and this long-awaited third entry makes it a triumphant return for a superhero brawler that feels more relevant than ever.
Editor's note: This review will be updated and finalized once we've tested more of the cooperative multiplayer, both locally and online, after the servers are populated.
The manicured lawns in Etherborn are minimally sculptured. Their soil is thinly layered with patches of grass contained within grey slabs of concrete, and they stand in stark contrast to a backdrop of crumbling pillars and decrepit buildings. And like examining the self-contained scenes of a diorama, you'll find yourself ruminating over these landscapes as you unravel the puzzle of how to traverse them. But while Etherborn's minimalist beauty carries suggestions of loftier and more ambitious storytelling it's instead hampered a dissonant narrative, and a brevity that makes it feel lacking.
Like many platformers, Etherborn seems deceptively simple initially: just leapfrog your way towards the level's finale while collecting crystalline orbs that unlock previously inaccessible areas. In fact, some of Etherborn's geometric planes and architectural complexity very much harken back to Monument Valley, a title that famously plays on optical illusions and the mathematically-inspired art of MC Escher. What makes this puzzle game different is that its laws of gravity aren't like our world's. You can simply walk across any surface--even those perpendicular to your character--as long as there's a curved edge that connects them. However, you're still vulnerable to injuries and death; accidentally sliding off these landscapes and into the endless void below is a possibility.
Scaling these lopsided grounds introduces another dimension and new, unforeseen challenges. Etherborn often manipulates your perspectives, challenging you to find the abstract solutions to its puzzles. There are occasions where I was left baffled, unable to move on, only to realize much later that I didn't notice a few platforms I could jump on because they were turned onto their sides. At other times, you may even spend the bulk of a level on a horizontal wall and leaping over chasms within the same plane--a perspective that's tough to get the hang of. It's highly likely that you'll slip through the cracks at least once or twice due to the obtuse angles and see yourself spiraling downwards into the emptiness below (or sideways, given the game's unconventional gravitational pull).
Key to solving some puzzles is a keen eye for detail, which can help you to spot obscure passageways that open another route to your goal. Becoming intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of every miniature world is something you'll want to do not only to satisfy your curiosity about the environment--it's also necessary if you want to get through the game's levels. Upping the ante in later chapters are shifting monochrome blocks, which expand and retract depending on where you are--and they can be a great source of grievance when they hinder your path.
It would have been a drag to commit to all these efforts if Etherborn's ecosystem were a lusterless one. Luckily, wandering and discovering each microcosm is mostly joyful and even oddly meditative. You can hike along the side of a flight of steps and find a starkly different landscape tucked away underneath, or run along the contours of the structures surrounding the island. Even though Etherborn's world is sparsely decorated and may even appear sterile, with only a few shrubberies, dandelions and elements of urban decay adorning each world, it is a universe still feels genuinely intriguing.
Discovering a hidden passage or a curved pathway as a new means of moving forward toward uncharted surfaces is hugely gratifying. Given that you'll probably be devoting a fair amount of time tinkering away at its puzzles, it also helps that the orchestral, instrumental soundtrack is soothing and non-intrusive. And while there are only five chapters in the game, each will probably take you at least an hour to figure out. Coupled with its steep levels of difficulty, it's also comforting that mistakes via accidental deaths are also quickly forgiven, with the game swiftly transporting you back to the state you were in a few seconds ago.
What's decidedly less impressive, however, is how hard Etherborn tries to shoehorn an ill-fitting narrative within the puzzles. You're a featureless, transparent humanoid figure with a very visible circulatory system, a character vaguely resembling the human anatomy mannequin found in a biology classroom. At the behest of an incorporeal, hallowed voice, you're tasked to travel across these lands in search of a series of waypoints. Tapping on these will eventually reveal various paths on a massive tree called the Endless Tree, its bark gradually peeling off to expose a meandering, vein-like system across its trunk that ties all the chapters together. It's a nifty inclusion that references the game's imagery of humanity and anatomy, but ultimately an inconsequential one.
Even as this disembodied voice tells a story that alludes to the beginnings of human civilization, the plot feels perfunctory and strangely divorced from its puzzles. Aside from introducing each chapter, the voice doesn't influence the game very much; instead, it simply delves into vague parables about the folly of human nature, without really explaining the significance of your mannequin character and this exotic world. This sense of dissonance makes the tale rather tenuous to follow. Exacerbating this is how the dialogue is filled with abstract ideas that teeter on pretentiousness, bloated with lofty lines like, "And so, their vast ego was also reduced to mere language." Etherborn would have been even more intriguing had it allowed you to project your own stories and interpretations onto this universe--like many curious onlookers would as they peer into a diorama.
The highlights of Etherborn are undoubtedly its inventive puzzles and its constellation of small, compelling worlds. But with just five chapters, its brief runtime feels lacking, and it left me wanting for more puzzles to solve. Etherborn attempts to compensate for this by unlocking a new game plus mode after you've completed the game, which lets you dive into the same worlds once more. This mode is largely similar to the original one, the only difference being the crystalline orbs, which are located in harder-to-reach places. Apart from the slightly more challenging platforming puzzles, however, the electrifying thrill of discovery has largely subsided--you've already found all the secrets, after all--and there's little incentive to revisit it. By the end, even the allure of these small worlds isn't enough to make you return, with only the yearning for more remaining in its wake.
The old adage of "don't judge a book by its cover" doesn't just apply to printed matter. When you first see images and screenshots of Dragon Quest Builders 2, it's easy to write the game off as yet another blocky-building sandbox game. But Dragon Quest Builders 2 is more than just your run-of-the-mill material-gathering, object-crafting, block-laying game. Its virtual community-creating gameplay stands out among the crowd, jam-packed with the warmth, joy, and charm that makes the Dragon Quest series so delightfully memorable.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 begins with your player character, a Builder with the ability to move and create objects, winding up stranded on a strange archipelago. Long ago, these islands flourished with a great civilization--up until a cult called the Children of Hargon gained power, destroying all that existed and forbidding those in its thrall from creating anything new. It's up to you and your mysterious friend, a snarky, aggressive boy named Malroth, to destroy the cult's hold on the people and restore these islands to their former glory, one block at a time. Much like how the original Dragon Quest Builders was a take on a what-if ending for the original Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest Builders 2 takes the ending of Dragon Quest II and turns it on its head--but you don't need to be familiar with that game to get a lot of enjoyment out of this one. (You will appreciate several of the callbacks, though.)
The core gameplay loop in Dragon Quest Builders is immensely satisfying. You have a central island, the Isle of Awakening, that acts like one big sandbox, along with several other islands both large and small that you can visit to gather materials and advance the main story. The larger islands all feature a big, overarching quest to restore a destroyed population center, which you'll accomplish by completing numerous smaller sub-quests to build facilities, find new materials, help individual NPCs, and explore different areas. Completing these quests rewards you with the gratitude of those you've aided, which in turn yields new item-creation recipes, improves the skills of the NPCs at the base, and brings more characters to the area to help with building, farming, mining, and monster-slaying. When you finally complete the lengthy main quest on each of the bigger islands, several of the NPCs will return with you to the Isle of Awakening, eager to aid you in building your own unique city and letting you run absolutely wild with your creative town-building concepts.
Part of what makes this gameplay loop so fulfilling is that doing these dozens upon dozens of small errands for NPCs rarely becomes tedious. The characters you meet in Dragon Quest Builders 2 are lively and full of personality (and funny accents), and helping them out with their needs to receive their heartfelt thanks just feels really, really good. You also get the joy of watching a town transform from a barely-functional series of ramshackle hovels into a thriving community thanks to your persistence and kindness. When you finish a new building or complete a task, the populace gathers around to showcase their elation and shower you with gratitude points--a simple reward that nonetheless feels wonderful to get.
It also helps that the world itself is tremendously fun to explore. The varied settings you encounter in your quest offer a variety of things to discover: towering hills, sandy beaches, secret underground caverns, ancient ruins, waterlogged bogs, and so on. You'll find plenty to do out in Dragon Quest Builders 2's expansive environments, and by exploring, you're amply rewarded with rare materials, optional side quests, some new NPC companions, and even a few simple puzzles that yield nice rewards upon completion. There are even a few randomly generated small islands you can sail out to that offer fresh experiences every time you visit, allowing you the chance to see interesting procedurally-made environments, collect lots of unique, rare materials and bring them all home to build the city of your dreams.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Dragon Quest game without many of the series' beloved monster designs. While a few non-humans are friendly to you, most of the monsters you encounter are strict adherents of the Children of Hargon and want nothing more than to destroy you and everything you've made. You'll have to fight them off if you want to keep on building. Unfortunately, you're a Builder, not a fighter, so your combat prowess for a lot of the game feels quite lacking.
As a result, combat winds up being the weakest part of the game. While it's a marked improvement over the original Dragon Quest Builders, offering you a lot more control over your character and bringing NPCs into the mix to aid you in fighting, it still feels quite bland most of the time--you'll just run up to enemies, whack them with a few basic weapon strikes, and hope they die sooner rather than later. The NPC warriors that join you on expeditions and when your bases and city need defending are far more useful for fighting off enemies than you are most of the time, particularly Malroth, who is an absolute beast when it comes to monster-mashing. I frequently found myself just waiting for Malroth to whittle down enemies' health before I went in to finish them off and collect EXP and loot. The boss fights utilize some gimmicks involving your Builder abilities that make them significantly more interesting than normal fights, but they're few and far between. At least combat isn't a primary focus of the game, and new abilities and items you build as you progress help with enemy destruction--but combat never really stops feeling like an annoying distraction to what you want to do most: explore and build stuff.
But whatever problems the game has are quickly negated by everything else Dragon Quest Builders 2 does well. Characters are quirky and memorable with wonderfully written dialogue (though they're sometimes a smidge too chatty), you get lots of cool materials to work with over the course of the game to build and customize your city, and everything, from the controls to the visuals and audio to the interface, feels inviting, engaging, and fun. Occasionally there's a bit of tiny text that's hard to read (a problem made worse when playing in handheld mode on Switch), but the vast majority of the time you'll be too busy building away to care about the game's small irritations.
Online co-op play opens once you have cleared the game’s first major quest. Unfortunately, while you can’t play the campaign in a co-op session, you are still allowed to build on the Isle of Awakening alongside a buddy or three. Working together to build your island is as fun as playing solo—maybe even more so—and the various customization items you can craft to wear during these sessions add a lot of goofy charm to the proceedings. In our testing, sessions with other players located in North America went smoothly, with few noticeable lag hiccups. If you want to show off but don’t feel like having a virtual block party, there’s also a bulletin board where players from around the world can post, tag, and share screenshots of their creations in-game.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a great game, combining exploration, sandbox-building, questing, and town-management into a delightful package that will gladly suck up your time and put a big smile on your face. It's the sort of game that you'll intend to play for a little while, only to find that hours have flown by once you manage to actually put it down. Don't dismiss this one when you see big square blocks on the box--you'll be missing out on a very fun twist on an excellent gaming foundation.
The taxi cab is refitted as a confession booth in Night Call, a noir-styled visual novel that interweaves a series of murder mysteries through the tales of dozens of ordinary Parisian. The threads of their lives intermingling as you crisscross the streets of the city; Everyone's a little frail or fragile, much like the fabric of the game's core investigation, and it's the insights into people's everyday hopes, fears, and secrets that linger long after the end credits have rolled.
You play as Houssine, an Algerian immigrant living in Paris. Much of his background is elided, or only revealed in suggestion over the course of the game, but he is Muslim, sports a thick, dark beard, and works as a cab driver on the night shift. Houssine is recently back behind the wheel after an assault that saw him hospitalized and, because of who he is, a suspect in the very crime of which he was a victim.
Houssine understands what it means to feel like an outsider. There's been a terrorist attack recently, the details of which remain unspecified, but Arab men like Houssine are singled out for suspicion, their mere presence a cause for concern. His assault also resulted in the death of another person, the latest in a series of deaths that the police are keen to pin on him. One detective, however, disagrees and offers Houssine a deal: Help her investigation into the murders and he'll walk free.
It feels right that Houssine would be of interest to the police given the political climate (both current and echoed in-game) and the hints at his troubled past. And it feels authentic that someone would pressure him to essentially become an informant, the kind of blackmail that insinuates that inside the moral grey area of society lies a corrupt, black core. These themes--of feeling like you don’t belong, of a rotten system operating to exclude all but the privileged few--infuse not just Houssine’s personal experience but of many of the people he encounters, and work well in linking together an otherwise disparate collection of stories. At one point a young black man from Chicago (he’s in Paris studying to become a mime, hilariously) gets into Houssine’s cab after a humiliating run-in with the police, and they bond over their shared experiences. “I’d say the police have a problem with black people,” Houssine says, then grins, “... and Arabs.”
Each night, Houssine hits the streets to track down clues and follow up leads, all while performing his regular job. From a map of the city, you select a fare to take and watch a yellow arrow navigate to its destination, the scene then overlaying an interior shot of the cab with Houssine front right and his passenger(s) in the back seat behind.
At this point, the only thing to do is talk. Conversations are entirely text-based, with you selecting dialogue options on Houssine's behalf interspersed with his internal observations. Despite being minimally animated, with a handful of poses and expressions each, each character conveys a remarkable range of emotion and succeeds in bringing to vivid life each new person you encounter.
It's a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, too. In total there are 75 passengers to meet over the course of the game, drawn from a broad range of ages, social classes, ethnicities, sexualities and, in one or possibly two cases, dimensions. They each have their own stories to tell, and Houssine seems to be the man chosen to hear them all.
That's because while he's an outsider, as a cab driver, Houssine's difference is camouflaged. Many of the people he picks up are oblivious to him, at least at first. Couples discuss private matters as if he is not there. Lone passengers mutter to themselves, seemingly unaware of the possibility there's a real human being sharing the vehicle with them. When they do notice him, one passenger scoffs at the idea that a lowly cab driver could have any useful advice. Another passenger assumes Houssine has certain political sympathies because he's a brown, working-class man. "According to the people of this country, you don't count," one character tells him, with weary resignation. Houssine is both othered and unseen, tagged as different and yet simultaneously erased.
However, some passengers are immediately warm towards Houssine, while others, if distant or cautious to begin with, soon find themselves disarmed. Regardless of their disposition, however, they're all willing to reveal the most intimate details of their inner lives with often only the slightest bit of delicate prodding. There's the politician who is at the end of his tether over endemic corruption and pleads with Houssine to help him leak confidential documents. There's the lesbian couple who are loudly debating the merits of the prospective sperm donor with whom they have just concluded a "date." There's the former porn actress who is eager to talk all about her new pro-union production company making gender-positive porn movies. These tales are often funny, moving, and sweet--but moreover, they're always fascinating and exceptionally well-written.
In between these fares, Houssine can visit various locations to further his investigation. He knows someone who works somewhere who might have some information, that sort of thing. But these scenes don't feel as fleshed out as the cab ride conversations. It's not made clear how Houssine knows to go to these places or why many of these contacts are able to help him. Indeed, much of the casework he's pursuing is obscured, as if key details have been intentionally, frustratingly, left out of reach. When Houssine returns to his apartment each morning and assesses the clues he’s uncovered--presented as hand-written notes pinned to a board--I found it difficult to interpret what much of it meant. By the time Houssine was called upon to accuse a suspect, I made an unconvincing guess that just happened to be correct.
The structure of this series of murder mysteries is strange. There are three cases to choose from when you begin a new game, and each is framed the same way: Houssine finds himself the inadvertent victim of a serial killer and strong-armed by a detective to assist the investigation. Recurring characters populate each case, though if you meet someone in one case, that relationship won't carry over into the next one. It was very odd to give a ride in the second case to the very same person I'd revealed as the killer in the first. I did learn some more things about him that complicated my feelings about how the first case was resolved, but I couldn’t help but wish I’d encountered this conversation while pursuing that first case.
Houssine can't just focus on his detective work. He needs to earn a living, too. Fuel for your cab, daily car maintenance, and repayments on your cab license are all a drain on your bank account that can only be plugged by picking up new fares. Your boss says you're like a son to him, but if you don't make enough money from your shift and can't afford to pay his cut, the car maintenance, and the license fee, he fires you on the spot and it's game over.
I like the theory behind this slight economic sim layer. It's there to ensure you feel the precariousness of Houssine's existence while also nudging you towards interacting with all the characters who don't really have anything to do with the core mystery. But my experience of the normal difficulty setting was that it felt too punitive. On my first case, I entered an all-too-real downward spiral where I simply couldn't pull Houssine out of the red and had to abandon the game. On the easy difficulty, Houssine still loses money each night, but he starts with a buffer sufficient to see the story through.
If you're going to play Night Call, then play it on the "Story" setting. The normal difficulty claims it is "the way Night Call is meant to be played." I disagree. Night Call is at its best when you're behind the wheel, gliding through the rain-kissed boulevards, lost in conversation with whichever lost soul just happened to appear in the back seat of your cab. It presents itself as a noir mystery, but the murders you’re investigating are the least interesting narrative element. Night Call’s real strength is in the stories it tells about Paris, about the people who live there and the meaningful connections you can have with them no matter how brief or unexpected. It's these people you'll remember once you've solved each case, not the fares you charged them.
SolSeraph is overtly inspired by the Super NES cult classic ActRaiser. If there was any shred of doubt of its roots given its mixture of action-platforming and sim-style management, that was removed when it opened with a slow spinning first-person view barrelling towards the earth--an homage to ActRaiser's Mode-7 showpiece so specific that it virtually winks at the audience. Curiously, though, it's some of SolSeraph's departures from ActRaiser that let it stand on its own, for better and for worse.
SolSeraph puts you in the divine boots of Helios, the Knight of Dawn, as he helps build civilization and fight against a set of Younger Gods who each manifest as the embodiment of a natural disaster. There is a hodge-podge of religious iconography at play, and Helios looks especially angelic, but this isn't tied to any specific faith. Instead, SolSeraph invents its own mythology, borrowing bits and pieces from world religions.
Each of the five territories consists of two distinct game types. To begin, you fight through monsters to unlock a new civilization. Each one is housed on its own environment type which presents its own set of hazards. An island nation is prone to constant flooding, for example, while the snowy northern tribe has trouble tending farms and needs to rely on livestock instead. You guide the people to manage their population and resources, like food and lumber, while also building defensive structures to fend off attacks from monsters. Then you can build a temple near one of the monster lairs, take part in another action-platforming or arena battle to clear it, and continue until you unlock the final portion that houses the Younger God boss.
This all may sound very familiar to ActRaiser fans, but the focus on defending against waves of monster attacks is actually a wild departure. SolSeraph's approach is more akin to a tower defense game, as the waves of monsters all march on a set path toward a centralized base marked by a campfire. Defeating waves of monsters takes a variety of defensive structures, even earning its own part in the radial menu, along with the godly powers to summon lightning or dispatch a guardian. In short, it takes the formerly minor threat of monster attacks and makes it much more active and central to the experience.
On one hand, this change makes the sim portions feel that much more dynamic. Protecting your people from brutal waves of monster attacks can be much more frenetic than the relaxed, casual sensation of watching your society grow and occasionally guiding your people in the right direction. On the other hand, this approach comes at the expense of what made ActRaiser such an interesting examination of faith.
In ActRaiser, society grew on its own as you mildly steered them, and your tools were limited. You could summon an earthquake to destroy houses and encourage stronger building, but you couldn't meticulously place each individual building on a grid. In some ways, ActRaiser functioned as a reflection on the limitations of divinity. Interactions were indirect, and the stories that played out were sometimes tragic. The people assumed it must be the will of a higher power, but in reality, you were powerless to stop some events that they had set in motion by their own free will. It's a powerful idea that, in SolSeraph, is undermined by having such direct control over everything your civilization does.
The spirit is still there, to a point. The people pray to Helios without ever hearing an answer, so the idea is still present that they're operating on faith and hoping some dispassionate deity will end their struggles. But this is present only in short story sequences, and it's discordant with the mechanics of the game itself. There is no sensation that the culture is flourishing on its own. You aren’t gently guiding as much as dictating, which feels oddly out-of-step with the idea that the people have unproven faith in a higher power.
Functionally, the sim segments are relatively simplistic but often unintuitive. Monster waves come infrequently enough that it's often easy to build up a massive arsenal of defenses before the first attack ever comes. There's no real penalty for failure, and in fact getting a game over screen just starts the monster clock over again from zero while keeping all of your recent building changes. At the same time, it isn't always clear where the monsters will be coming from or in what numbers. Building temples to clear monster lairs relies on meeting a threshold of "Souls," which are gathered from defeated monsters. This can be counterintuitive in a game about a god gathering worshippers, who could also logically be counted as souls and more sensibly connect to building a worship temple. Instead, the population only matters inasmuch as it gives you bodies to assign to defensive structures and farms. There is no counter for your total number of assigned versus idle villagers, which means you may reassign them at a critical moment by accident.
The game’s other half, the action-platforming segments, can be unforgiving. The controls are rigid and monsters come from all sides, which often makes it difficult to turn quickly to take on different threats. Life comes at a premium, with very sparse health regen and a magic spell that only recharges one measly health point at a time. Checkpoints are often nowhere to be found, which is especially frustrating when you accidentally wander into an optional area with a tougher battle that grants some small permanent reward like extra Weather Magic for the sim portion.
Much more problematic in the action sequences is the interplay between the foreground and background. Helios does his battle strictly on one plane, but enemies often approach from the foreground or background. You can see them approaching, but until they reach your plane, slashing with your sword won't touch them. The transition between untouchable and vulnerable isn't clearly signaled, so oftentimes your best bet is to slash wildly at an approaching enemy until it takes damage--but since some of them fly diagonally towards you, this isn't foolproof. The interplay between these areas can present a good challenge when it's just background characters firing projectiles that you'll need to dodge, but the tendency for enemies to cross from one plane to another just creates more frustration than it's worth.
The Younger Gods boss characters are the exception to this rule and where the combat shines. The old-school challenge isn’t hampered by the gimmick present in normal enemy encounters. Better yet, the collection of boss designs are largely a creative mixture of different cultural traditions from around the world, and each one’s power set and attack patterns connect with the natural disasters they have represented for your people. Defeating them grants you a new power, but it’s nearly as satisfying to have defeated the personification of floods, drought, or wildfires, after watching your culture struggle with them.
SolSeraph could have hemmed slightly closer to the conventions of its clear inspiration, and it may have been better for it. The changes to the sim aspect create gameplay depth at the expense of tonal depth, and the action segments can be annoyingly clunky, especially with the unnecessary addition of enemies that are untouchable until an unclear point in time. The willingness to riff on one of the most beloved classics of an entire console era shows a remarkable amount of audacity, and it actually halfway works. It's the half that doesn't that makes SolSeraph such a qualified recommendation.
198X taps into our love for the games of the '80s, giving you a handful of short gaming vignettes wrapped around a simple story about the pain of growing up. The games themselves look more like '90s SNES games than '80s arcade titles (albeit very handsome SNES games), but 198X's neon aesthetic (and, of course, its name) is clearly trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia for this period. Unfortunately, despite a few nice homages, it's not a particularly transportive experience.
198X features five faux-'80s arcade games to play through, and they're short enough that the whole thing, story sequences included, wraps in less than two hours. They're not quite minigames--they're framed as tiny slices of full games that exist within the narrative's world, the first few levels of five larger experiences. These games, which are chained together sequentially by beautiful pixel-art cutscenes set to a synth soundtrack, make up the entirety of 198X's gameplay. The plot centers on the "Kid" (he's never named beyond this), who lives in a suburb outside of a major city. He watches the highway at night and thinks about getting out of town. He seems generally unhappy with his life, until he discovers an arcade hidden away in an old abandoned factory and discovers a sense of purpose and place amidst the machines and patrons there.
198X suffers from some of the same problems that Ernest Cline's Ready Player One suffered from. If that book's insistence that being a geek is inherently good irritated you, then 198X's vague reverence for arcades and youth will likely have a similar effect. There's something very immature about the game's portrayal of the Kid and the way he talks about his idealistic childhood, while giving limited insight into why things are so hard on him now. "You get to high school and everyone's brainwashed," he says at one point, which is about as deep as the game gets in its exploration of the difficulty of one's teenage years. You're not given enough insight into the Kid to really get a sense of why this arcade is so important to him, beyond a few vague references to his father not being around anymore.
Of the five games you play through in 198X, only two really touch on the boy's struggles in a meaningful way. Playing through the five games in order, then, doesn't tell us a lot about more about the Kid's private life, and there's little real sense of why they are important to him beyond a general sentiment that games are powerful and important by default. Much of this narrative assumes your own investment in the power of an arcade, and the game doesn't put much effort into selling you on why this particular arcade, and these particular games, mean so much to the Kid.
Your first foray into the arcade comes through Beating Heart, a Final Fight-style brawler with a simple two-button control scheme. It's the most basic game included--you can punch, do a jump kick, or perform a spinning kick, and if you die while facing off against the handful of enemy types, you can immediately respawn without penalty. It's a simple introduction, with a lovely period-appropriate midi soundtrack that does a great job of evoking the arcade classics it is paying homage to (in fact, this is true of every game in 198X). But it doesn't offer anything interesting or unique in its mechanics, nor does it contribute much to the narrative of the Kid.
Next is Out of the Void, a shooter clearly inspired by R-Type, which only runs for two levels. You fly from left to right, collecting ship upgrades and firing regular and charged shots to take down your enemies. It's solid fun, if nothing spectacular, and things get quite hairy in the second level. It's one of the more enjoyable games in 198X simply because it actually feels pretty close to a decent arcade space shooter. Alas, it's over very quickly, and while it's relatively enjoyable, it's certainly not as inventive or intense as the best games in the genre--the final boss, for instance, is a pushover. A more challenging experience, or some unique mechanics, would have better represented the games from this period that we have actual nostalgia for.
After this comes The Runaway, an OutRun-style driving game that lacks the arcade classic's sense of speed and whimsy. The lack of gear changes and sharp corners makes this one a bit of a snooze, although it's also the game in the collection that achieves the most resonance with the narrative--at a certain point, elements of the world you've seen in the cutscenes blend into the game. It's a neat trick, but it's in service of a plot that isn't particularly gripping..
Shadowplay, a "ninja" game, is the standout of 198X. It's the longest game in the collection (although you'll still likely finish it in about 20 minutes). You play as a fast-running ninja across a series of automatically-scrolling screens. You can move left and right, jump, slide, and slash your sword at enemies ahead of you. It's got the feel of an involved auto-runner, and timing your jumps and slashes to avoid enemy attacks and traps is engaging, with ever-changing level designs and interesting challenges that hit the right balance of difficulty where the game is challenging without being frustrating.
The platforms, spikes and pits you encounter make you read your environment and think about how you time your movements as you run through each level slashing at your enemies. You can collect power-ups to give your sword a greater reach, and there are more levels here (and more gameplay variety) than in the other games. There's even a great boss fight at the end where you have to dodge between multiple platforms as a demon shoots tendrils at you, and reaching the end feels satisfying in a way the other games don't. As much as 198X feels like a gimmick, Shadowplay stands out as an experience that feels like it could work as a full title. It feels disconnected from the overarching narrative, but it's the most enjoyable part of the 198X.
The final game, Kill Screen, is a simple first-person RPG. It's aiming to be weird and creepy rather than particularly challenging, and on that level, it works fairly well. It's meant to represent the mental state of the protagonist, who has, up until that point, spent every cutscene moping. It works as a mood piece, and there's some cool weird imagery in there, but the gameplay, which involves hunting for dragons in a maze full of random encounters, is very simple. There's a neat Paper Mario-inspired mechanic where you can time button presses on attacks to do more damage, and the weird enemy designs are inventive, but it's fairly one-note in both its gameplay model and its commentary on the Kid's state of mind.
198X ends with a "To Be Continued." This feels appropriate because the game, which is not being explicitly billed as episodic on its Steam page, feels not just short, but incomplete. As neat as the concept is, 198X doesn't do enough to sell you on the connection between the metanarrative of the Kid and the arcade games he is playing--or spend enough time investing you in why any of this matters. There's promise in some of these short genre riffs, but the game doesn't give you many reasons to care about the Kid and his desire to get out of the suburbs.
198X is a great idea with middling execution. While its games offer some brief enjoyment, there's not enough here for the game to feel like a proper ode to '80s arcades, nor does the Kid's plight, and his longing to escape his current life, totally connect. There's definitely a spark of something here--and Shadowplay, in particular, is a lot of fun--but 198X feels more like a proof of concept than a final product.
Developer Spiders has released a new trailer showing off their newest game, Greedfall, and it won't be too long until we get to chart the mysterious island of Teer Fradee ourselves.
Greedfall's focus seems to be designing a completely player-driven experience, including character customization, romance options, and faction alliances, while also delivering a solid single-player campaign. The takes place on an uncharted island in the 17th century, where magic and mystical beasts are everywhere.
"Player freedom and choice are core to GreedFall, as your decisions will build friendships, break alliances, diffuse conflicts and shape the future of the island," according to Spiders. "Exploring a brave new frontier, your search for lost secrets will rely on more than just skill in combat. Everything, whether a dialogue option, choosing a stealthy approach, or even your choice of companion in a given situation may alter the outcome."
When The Bard's Tale IV, a successor to the original 80s RPG trilogy, was released in 2018, it stood as a love letter to the old RPG classics of earlier days. In a few short months, you can play that love letter in its expanded and improved form.
The Director's Cut is coming fully stocked with more enemies, weapons, and character customization options, a new end-game chapter to the story, additional difficulty settings, and a whole host of improvements to the game's balance and interface.
While The Bard's Tale IV originally only released on PC, The Bard's Tale IV: Director's Cut will release digitally on Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, and PC on August 27. Physical copies of the game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will release on September 6. If you already on the base game on PC, you will receive the Director's Cut as a free update.
For more on Bard's Tale IV, check out our review of the original version of the game here.
Details about Infinity Ward's new take on its popular Modern Warfare subseries are still scant, especially when it comes to the multiplayer. Today, Infinity Ward pulled back the curtain just a hair to show off a snippet of one of its new modes, Gunfight.
Gunfight is a 2v2 mode where each team has 40 seconds to kill the other. After 40 seconds pass, a flag will spawn on the map and teams will need to capture and defend it for three seconds to score a point. If nobody scores a point within the time limit, the team with the most health wins that round. The first team to six points wins the match.
For more on Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, check out our thoughts about the reveal here.
The Monster Hunter World: Iceborne expansion gives fans a new region to explore in which variants of known monsters and all-new beasts test the upmost of your abilities. The game's new trailer features two such variants: Fulgur Anjanath and Ebony Odogaron, as well as a look at the Seliana home base.
Fulgur Anajanath uses lightning instead of fire, and Ebony Odogaron has a wider attack range as well as a dragon-elemental attack. The new trailer also shows off Glavenus, with its sweeping tail attack.
Before you go out and tackle these fearsome beasts, you can recharge and stock up at the Seliana base in Hoarfrost Reach, complete with a streamlined gathering hub, gear-crafting smithy, resource center, gardens, and more. Players can also customize their My Room in Seliana, and after the game's launch Capcom says players will be able to visit each other's rooms.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne comes out September 6 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (the PC version is planned for the winter). For more on the expansion, be sure to check out the exclusive stories in our cover-story hub (click below).