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Early Access Coasting: Plastic Games’s Bit Shifter

Not every strategy game wants to be the next Starcraft or Crusader Kings, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so.

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Early Access Coasting: Plastic Games’s Bit Shifter
Photo: Plastic Games

Not every strategy game wants to be the next Starcraft or Crusader Kings, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. In an era where the cooperative action of multiplayer online battle arenas dominates the cold tactics of their stylistic forebears, strategy developers face an onerous fork: to double down on the spheres of interlocking complexity that have come to define the genre, or cast away their hard-won layers of play trying to chase the MOBA dragon by adding mechanics that test a player’s reflexes rather than their tactical acumen. Still, after a few hours with Bit Shifter, a game that tries to wrap the genre’s compelling micro-decisions into a lighter, more approachable package, the latter path may be more fraught than once thought.

It’s not for lack of trying though. By Early Access standards, Plastic Games’s new title takes on all comers with ease, offering a fully baked experience that impresses far more than the laughably incomplete tech demos that have made the service more of a scarlet letter than a viable business model. Indeed, with its 20-odd levels and attempts at an overarching plot, Bit Shifter feels like a throwback to the “shareware” model of the ‘90s, when the first “episode” of games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D were offered for free as a trial to prospective buyers. However, while those titles were deft enough to lock the promise of bigger guns and badder monsters behind their paywall, Bit Shifter seems content to offer more of itself and little else—a proposition whose appeal seems apt to evaporate as soon as one vanquishes the last of the enemies currently on offer.

Bit Shifter’s core design is anchored on one simple belief: Players will care more about strategy if they’re part of the battle. And while this notion is far from new, its cleverness still lingers. The player controls an enormous flying disk equipped with lasers that doubles as a ferry for their devoted Bits, soldiers in the never-ending war against the Virus that threatens to corrupt the data stream. As you might expect, the combat capabilities of the player become increasingly limited as the game progresses (your laser blasts do little to stop the slow crawl of the red toward your resources, and satellite dishes will sap your mobility with lightning should you venture too deep into enemy territory), but the limited number of Bits available ensure that skillful flying is all but required during the game’s toughest missions.

This all makes for engaging, hectic stuff, as in the wails of three different warning sirens ringing in your ears as you try desperately to defend three disparate points from the encroaching virus, and the sudden rush of victory as your small army decimates the last of the red splatter. However, after a few hours of it, the game’s central flaw begins to reveal itself: In its attempts to bring player engagement closer to the fore, it’s abandoned much of the hard systemic breadth that constitutes much of the genre’s appeal. Generous health placement and ever-present power-ups always seem to tip the scales just enough in your favor, and most experienced players will find that the default difficulty offers little resistance to their expert strategizing.

If one yearns for the days when games could carve a tiny niche that a player could dwell in for just a few hours and call that “success,” Bit Shifter may very well scratch the itch. Others will find themselves wondering “Is this it?” as they load their disk with the bits for the umpteenth time. The answer is “yes,” but whether that’s enough will depend on the shifter alone.

Plastic Games’s Bit Shifter is available now for PC and SteamOS.

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Review: Resist the Call of the Pretty but Empty Shantae and the Seven Sirens

It retreads the same ground of the prior games’ fetch-quest-driven, backtracking-filled action-adventuring.

2

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Shantae and the Seven Sirens
Photo: WayForward

With each new entry in WayForward’s Shantae series comes the hope that new light will be shed on its adorable half-genie hero’s mysterious heritage. And the opening of Shantae and the Seven Sirens suggests that the series is going to at last fill in some of those blanks, as Shantae is for the first time meeting her brethren at Paradise Island’s Half-Genie Festival. But before Harmony, the eldest and wisest half-genie, can reveal her newfound friend’s history, she and the other half-genies are mysteriously abducted by Shantae’s old rival, the pirate Risky Boots, forcing Shantae to retread the same ground of the prior games’ fetch-quest-driven, backtracking-filled action-adventuring.

This familiarity is frustrating because the Shantae series has never been better animated. Shantae’s various animal transformations are adorable and seamless, particularly in the way her stone-breaking Bonker Tortoise retains those elegant eyelashes and how her ponytail becomes a tentacle when she shifts into her pink Octo Jet form. The other half-genies are also well-defined, with Zapple’s electrical powers self-evident in her spiky hair and Vera’s nature-tuned healing magic reflected by all the leaves woven into her mane. No doubt, Shantae and her fellow half-genies have never brimmed with as much life as they do here, but after a while the animation starts to feel like wallpapering over the game’s fundamental emptiness.

Maybe this purposeless feeling comes from the fact that Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a clone of a clone. The prior games in the series were already sexy reskins of the Wonder Boy games, right down to the animal transformations, but without the complexity. Shantae and the Seven Sirens offers an even more sultry update of what its predecessors have done. Sure, Shantae now turns into a Dash Newt instead of monkey, or a Sea Frog instead of a mermaid, but she still more or less puts into action the same wall-hugging and water-swimming abilities that she did in earlier games in the series. Though the well-written, if glib, fourth-wall-breaking narrative may lampshade the repetitious antics of returning characters like Squid Baron, it does nothing to alleviate the player’s déjà vu.

Complacency is the name of the game here: Each dungeon does just enough to differentiate itself from the previous one—look at the sliding-block puzzles of the Coral Mine or the cannon-mazes of the Sea Vent Lab—but they’re otherwise completely forgettable. The chip-tune beats are fine when matched to the waves of enemies or perilous spike-filled corridors, but if you listened to them outside of the game, they’d be a fate worse than elevator music.

The game’s backgrounds adequately convey the theme of each location, whether it’s a mossy tunnel or a spooky ghost ship, but only in the most basic sense, as there’s no real depth to these flat 2D renderings. There’s even an entirely superfluous “Monster Cards” gimmick that tries to make you feel better about all the repetitive hair-whipping attacks you have to perform against largely unthreatening enemies and bosses, in that occasionally your foes will drop cards that you can then equip to get slight ability boosts.

All of these flaws are much more noticeable in the rushed second half of the game, once the novelty of Shantae’s cute dance moves have given way to the realization that, no, you’re not doing anything interesting with that Quake Dance ability—just casting it on every screen, hoping that it causes some new treasure or path to reveal itself. This makes the constant backtracking even more irksome, since picking up those extra collectibles simply requires the push of a single button, as opposed to some creative combination of Shantae’s abilities. Worse, the final two dungeons in Shantae and the Seven Sirens do away with any pretense of exploration: The first, the so-called Squid Pit, is nothing more than a timed series of battles, and the second, the Flying Fortress, is just a long gauntlet of trite platforming challenges.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is likely to work its magic on younger players who are new to video games, who will ooh and aww at all of its cute bats, crabs, spiders, and skeletons, unable to recognize just how contrived so much of game’s elements really are. They won’t be bothered by how easily the bosses can be defeated, almost always by mashing the one attack button. Which is to say, if you haven’t seen this sort of thing before and don’t know what you’re missing, it’s a competently built distraction. But for everyone else, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of Shantae and the Seven Sirens. For a game that’s centered around taking a vacation, it’s really just too much work.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by WayForward

Developer: WayForward Publisher: WayForward Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 28, 2020 ESRB: E10+ Buy: Game

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Review: Sludge Life Will Vividly, Weirdly Stoke Your Sense of Rebellion

The world of the game may be small, but it brims with a weird sense of life.

3.5

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Sludge Life
Photo: Devolver Digital

As a tagger called Ghost, your main interaction with the open world of developer Terri Vellman and musician Doseone’s Sludge Life is to spray it with graffiti. The place is a small island overseen by the GLUG corporation, a mess of shipping containers, warehouses, and fences near an apartment block and a single greasy burger joint. All of it is built on concrete atop a vast ocean of sludge that stretches to the horizon, never deep enough for you to sink down into but squelchy and thick enough to slightly hinder your stride.

In this world, which you view through a grainy VHS filter that distorts the otherwise clean lines of Sludge Life’s art style, there’s little to do but make your mark. You parkour in order to tag spots on the game’s open world marked with floating blue spray cans, in the process acquiring enough of a reputation to eventually collaborate with other taggers, like an anthropomorphic fly named Mosca and a guy called Hans who sprays a big white hand all over the place in the image of his own humongous mitts. And they’ve all got their chosen graffiti motifs, including yourself: a bug-eyed green ghost that one tagging duo likens to a pimple.

When you’re not tagging in the game, you’re littering—the next best thing to assert your presence, to feel something by demonstrating that you were there, if only for a moment. Once you drink a can of what’s presumably soda or finish off a cigarette with the dedicated smoking button, you toss them right onto the ground. You even unceremoniously drop equipped items like a camera or a laptop or a glider as soon as you finish using them. And though your cigarette butts and empty cans remain were you left them, necessary items like the laptop teleport back to your hands as soon as you press the button to use them, as if the game were trying to reinforce the futility of your mildly rebellious littering. The graffiti, at least, isn’t so easily wiped away, the only thing close to a permanent trace that you can leave behind.

Jokey sight gags lurk around every corner, many of them accompanied by one-off mechanics like hocking a loogie into a plate of food. Vellman and Doseone get so much mileage out of the off-kilter atmosphere, a tiny world of disaffected misfits enveloped in a haze of ennui and diegetic cloud rap, with little to do beyond smoke, drink, watch TV, and do mushrooms. The island is a graffiti playground because everyone has gone on strike, demanding the attention of the cyclops cops (“clops”) who might otherwise chase taggers away. The cigarette mascot, a red smiley face named Ciggy, has been crushed by a fallen statue; a girl with a big scar stages regular heists to steal a washing machine; a normal dog paints graffiti; and a cat has two buttholes, one side-by-side with the other. This world may be small, but it brims with a weird sense of life reinforced by the simple mechanics that let you tag, platform, and consume.

Collecting everything can be a little tedious, particularly when coupled with the fiddly controls that make falling from narrow platforms a little too easy. But despite the presence of an in-game checklist, the game doesn’t encourage you to compulsively collect and complete as much as you can. Notably, the “bad ending” and “weird ending” both involve tracking down one final, elusive tagging spot, but the “good ending” has no such requirement. With no explicit quests or missions, everything on the island is there for you to explore and experiment with or even totally ignore. Sludge Life is a game to loiter in, for however long you need to grab some momentary respite. Remembering how one tagger got over-invested to the point where he pulled out his eyeballs and stuffed them in a jar, one character summarizes the game’s ethos: “I like life like I like my games: when it stops being fun, you just quit.”

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: Terri Vellman, Doseone Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PC Release Date: May 28, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Crude Humor, Blood, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: If Found… Is a Poignant Grappling with the Act of Erasure

The game reveals its brilliance by constantly and subtly reconfiguring the emotions behind erasure.

4

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If Found...
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser.

The eraser is the game’s dominant mechanic, and what you do with it doesn’t stop after you’ve gotten rid of the scribbles obscuring a face or a big word like “NEVER” over a smaller text snippet to reveal what’s underneath. Before you can move on, you need to do a second pass and then perhaps a third or fourth, until the page is blank save for a few smudges and faded lines. Sometimes there are further drawings underneath. Playing the game feels like wiping away what you’ve drawn on a foggy mirror, and then wiping away your own reflection too.

Your perspective changes depending on what page you’re viewing: Some automatically scroll from one zoomed-in section of a page to another, some let you freely drag the camera between different images, and some require you to erase the entire screen at once. The particulars of the erasing process hardly change, and in this, If Found… reveals its brilliance by constantly and subtly recontextualizing that action, reconfiguring the emotions behind it. Kasio’s family doesn’t accept her as a trans woman, so it feels appropriate to get rid of painful moments like her brother’s spoken contempt for who she is, or a strained dinner table conversation with her mother, who’s never malicious but noticeably reluctant to understand her.

Other moments, though, you might hesitate to erase, because not all of them are painful. The pages of Kasio’s diary can grow elaborate and expressive, conveying her joy during a band’s performance while she gets lost in the sound and the crowd. Through sound design, texture, and some wistful, earnest music, the pages represent things like night air, falling rain, and snow. Kasio comes to live among friends for a while, and you feel the infectious warmth of their chemistry together through her loving descriptions of their habits. But once you get started, you’re not able to pick and choose. Everything must go.

To play If Found… is to reconcile the inherently conflicting emotions that push someone toward erasure. You recognize the action’s catharsis through the smooth, meditative atmosphere that suggests its therapeutic potential, but you also grapple with its potential destructiveness, as you may accidentally erase the edges of some other part of the page you haven’t seen yet. To be freed of the negativity, you also have to go through the happier times represented beneath the scribbles and scratches, face the things that you don’t want to lose. Like Jim Carrey’s character in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you recognize the weight of certain moments only as they’ve begun to melt away.

The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. The connections can feel tenuous at times, with the recurring image of a black hole and space flight seeming at odds with the grounded, interpersonal storytelling. But If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: DREAMFEEL Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Buy: Game

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Review: Wildfire Is a Stealth Game of Thrilling Unpredictability

There’s considerable joy to poking at the edges of its ingenious interlocking systems to see what happens.

4

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Wildfire
Photo: Humble Bundle

Everything burns so easily in Wildfire, from grass to vines to wooden gates meant to impede your progress toward a level’s exit. The player character, an accused witch from a remote village razed by the forces of the Arch Duchess, can control the elements, though only up to a point. You can pluck the flames right out of a campfire or torch and throw them at will, but what happens after that can be quite hectic and out of your control; for one, embers may leap from one surface to another, literally burning up your hiding spots and traversal options while spooking nearby guards. In their thoughtless panic, terrified guards will ignore you entirely, abandoning their posts and sometimes even deciding to take their chances by jumping off a ledge. Anything but the encroaching flames.

Such riveting chaos is the crux of Sneaky Bastard’s stealth game, upending the mannered layouts of its brief, two-dimensional levels. The zoomed-out view of each level gives off a faint sense of omniscience, letting you freely scroll to see the careful patrols and designated hiding spots. But rather than allowing the player to grow comfortable and complacent by honing the same approach over time, Wildfire constantly introduces new mechanics as the forest gives way to dark caves and snowy mountaintops. Sometimes you get new powers entirely, such as being able to use plants to generate climbable vines or bushes to hide in. Water can generate an ice column, freeze enemies, or form a large bubble to carry you upward.

Other mechanics mingle with the game’s various systems, like the many ways an object can catch fire or the traversal mechanics that find you creeping below bridges or hanging off ledges to stay out of sight. Deposits of sulfur crystals explode at the slightest flame, leaving behind a pillar of smoke to obscure your passage or suffocate enemies into unconsciousness. Freezing an enemy will also deprive them of oxygen long enough to knock them out upon thawing, as long as they’re not already carrying a lantern to prematurely melt their icy prison. The emergent results play like a 2D take on systems-heavy games like Thief and Dishonored.

But some of the game does risk being a little too open-ended, since each level contains additional goals like an optional objective (burn all the vegetation, infiltrate via the roof), rewards for going undetected or not killing anyone, and sometimes captive villagers to rescue. It’s often not possible to complete every such task in a single playthrough, so you may freely return to prior levels at any point, even with powers acquired later in the game. But as a result, many of these tasks feel trivial, such as there being little reason to rescue all the villagers again when you’ve already gotten the reward. Indeed, in one level where they’re tied to some explosives, you don’t technically have to rescue them at all.

The game’s constant flow of new ideas doesn’t always pan out either, as the complexity of a few later levels can veer into outright tedium. Still, Wildfire mostly maintains a thrilling unpredictability for the way it’s permeated by accidents both happy and otherwise, like the flaming guard who flees into a sulfur deposit or the wooden bridge that breaks beneath your falling momentum. It fulfills that all-important requirement of a great stealth game: that there’s considerable joy to experimenting with new approaches and poking at the edges of its ingenious interlocking systems to see what happens.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Sneaky Bastards Publisher: Humble Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Maneater Is a Campy Action RPG Sunk by Repetition

The game’s campiness doesn’t extend to the shark combat, which flounders as a result of it mostly hinging on button-mashing.

3

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Maneater
Photo: Tripwire Interactive

Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater is told through the lens of a reality television show, Sharkhunters vs. Maneaters, whose obsessive host, Scaly Pete, hunts your bull shark character. That framework is a perfectly trashy choice—that is, for bringing just the right amount of reality to the game, and without standing in the way of your pure enjoyment. After all, the game is less of a true-to-life shark sim than it is an action RPG, one that lets you equip your shark with taser-like teeth, a glowing purple-streaked “shadow” body that emits toxins, and boat-breaking bony protrusions for fins. Once you gain the Amphibious organ evolution, your shark can flop its way across various beaches and boardwalks, gobbling up helpless, rubbernecking humans. Think of the game, then, as Grand Theft Shark.

Your shark’s actions may occasionally defy physics, but the environments against and through which you wreak bloody havoc rarely do. The game offers up environments that are well designed and varied, from the yellowish shallows of the Fawtick Bayou region to the pristine blues of Prosperity Bay and the darkened depths of the Gulf. Swim through narrow caves and sewer tunnels and you’ll find colorful phytoplankton, and you can interact with—that is, eat—a variety of realistically depicted sea creatures, from turtles to marlins, even sperm whales.

If only the game’s missions evolved alongside your shark as it grows from a baby-sized biter to a mega-sized masticator over the course of the campaign. There are seven main regions (and a tutorial area) and the progression through each is the same: Find the grotto so that you can fast travel, hunt a specific creature, perform “population control” by feeding on a certain species, and get “revenge” by killing a set quota of humans. Once you’ve done this, you’ll face off against that area’s apex animal—usually a higher-level version of basic predators like crocodiles, makos, and hammerheads—and then watch a clip from Scaly Pete’s reality show. All that changes are the wildlife and the biomes, like the polluted superfund site Dead Horse Lake and the golf-course islands found throughout Golden Shores.

The repetition of the mission structure extends to the actual gameplay. With the exception of the final boss fight, which forces players to make use of the tailwhip to hurl torpedoes back at your rival, pretty much every encounter is just a matter of hammering the bite button, especially if you’ve equipped the right evolutions for the task at hand. And there isn’t much to the exploration either. There are license plates, landmarks, and nutrient caches hidden throughout each area, but your overpowered sonar makes them simple to locate, and if there’s any challenge in collecting them, it comes from trying to get the camera to cooperate when you’re breaching toward an object hovering high above the water.

That exploring every nook and cranny of Maneater is still enjoyable comes down almost entirely to the spot-on casting of Chris Parnell as the narrator of the show within the game. His style of wounded snark colors both casual observations (“Catfish are monogamous, which means someone’s special somebody won’t be coming home tonight!”) and pop-cultural zingers, which arise every time you discover a submerged landmark. “Even a shark can’t help but marvel at this consumerist Babylon,” he notes, and, indeed, players will gobble up the nods to everything from Arrested Development’s frozen banana stand to SpongeBob’s pineapple home, to say nothing of the references to kaijus, Cthulhu, and Pennywise. Would that such specificity had been given to, say, the bounty hunters who wordlessly show up in progressively more advanced boats each time your shark gains a new infamy level.

Manhunter knows exactly what it is: an action-RPG so campy that the publicity material keeps trying to make “shARkPG” happen. That playful sense of camp shows up even in the game’s darkest moments, as in the spectacle of Scaly Pete losing limb after limb in his dogged pursuit of you. It even has a satirical bent, given the fact that the majority of your interactions with humanity’s accomplishments come in the form of either witnessing how they’ve sunk to the bottom of the ocean (or sending them there yourself), little more than bleached bones and rusted metal in the end. Sadly, that camp doesn’t extend to the shark combat, which flounders as a result of it mostly hinging on button-mashing. Ultimately, Maneater is too much like the “Baby Shark” song: catchy but repetitive.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by ONE PR Studio.

Developer: Tripwire Interactive Publisher: Tripwire Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 22, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Saints Row: The Third Remastered Serves Multiple Masters at Once

Saints Row: The Third is a game with an identity crisis, both within the context of its story and outside of it.

3.5

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Saints Row: The Third Remastered
Photo: Deep Silver

Even in its original form, Saints Row: The Third is a game with an identity crisis, both within the context of its story and outside of it. Are the rowdy street gangsters turned superstars of the game’s title better off moving forward as common criminals constantly looking for the next big score or, as Saints Row IV would end up putting it, “puckish rogues” prone to all sorts of comic shenanigans? In the broader, meta sense, the game is asking whether Saints Row as a series is better off giving up trying to be a realistic crime simulator in any way. The answer is a resounding yes, but it’s interesting to go back to Saints Row: The Third in 2020 just to see that creative struggle play out in real time.

The game’s gotten a massive visual overhaul in its newly remastered form—the city, the NPCs, and the lighting are all absolutely stunning now—but this is still very much a sandbox game from 2011, full of random, annoying little glitches, an inconsistent framerate (even when locked), and a character creator that’s both incredibly deep and hilariously janky in spots. And yet, all of that works oddly well in the context of this kind of game in 2020, especially when the appeal of the most popular sandbox game of all time, Grand Theft Auto V, comes from people trying to break it in the specific ways that this game is already broken.

Saints Row: The Third doubles down on the ridiculousness of its predecessor but still seems unsure whether that’s the way to go. A fun opening set piece that involves a gunfight during a freefall gives way to the comparatively dark note of series mainstay Johnny Gat getting got—or so we think—by the Syndicate, a European criminal organization that manages to cheat the Saints out of their stranglehold on the city of Steelport. Gat’s presumed death is treated with a measure of gravity, then immediately undercut by the next mission, where the Boss and former slacker turned no-nonsense henchwoman Shaundi end up taking over a military supply depot and ordering drone airstrikes on tanks. That sort of thing happens fairly often in the game’s early going. Throughout this stretch, the sort of bread-and-butter urban fetch quests that form the foundation of your average open-world crime game are heightened to the point of absolute absurdity, while any comedic momentum the game builds over time is eventually muted by the modern gangland material that’s played more straight than necessary.

That isn’t to say that Saints Row: The Third’s serious side is a complete wash. In fact, one of the game’s—and, arguably, the series’s—best missions is its most straightforward: a brutal, John Wick-ish shootout inside a Syndicate penthouse set to Kanye West’s “Power.” Enemy placement throughout the lavish environment is ingenious, but even this comparatively grounded moment still escalates quickly into a city-wide helicopter chase. That’s long before you factor in glorious absurdities like hovercrafts, Land Shark Guns, BSDM pony-cart chases, mind-controlling octopus launchers, and protracted jaunts in cyberspace where you get turned into a toilet. The game’s problem is one of consistency, where it would be so much stronger picking a tone and sticking with it instead of trying to serve multiple masters at once.

It doesn’t help that much of the middle stretch of the game involves introducing new and weird Activities to the player, couching them in the conceit of how they help the Saints take over the city as opposed to simply allowing them to be fun diversions for their own sake or crafting one-off narrative set pieces that stand on their own. Disguising mini-games as narrative progression creates a bit of dissonance, where the ridiculous story comes off as perfunctory as it develops, just a paper-thin excuse to introduce more grindable content dotted around the game’s map. Despite the fact that the characters you meet during these activities are by and large a joy to interact with, hanging out with them involves running the same activity for them over and over, they’re only delightful in short bursts of gameplay.

There are maybe a dozen different types of activities to do around Steelport, and the ones where the sharp writing and dialogue get to shine make going back to them worthwhile. For players who’ve already spent dozens of hours in Steelport, they’ll at least be able to marvel at the visual upgrade, of seeing these places and characters feel more impressively real without skirting into the Uncanny Valley. The level of customization for your player character, the friendly NPCs in your gang, and the arsenal you take into battle is astonishing.

With the original release’s entire DLC content included here, those options are even more expansive and ridiculous, and available from the early hours of the game. There’s a vast number of ways to approach activities and liven them up, and Saints Row: The Third is far more welcoming to players looking to break the world instead of trying to grapple with it, especially now that it’s been visually brought up to current standards.

Mainly, having Saints Row: The Third looking like a current-gen experience truly hammers home that, yes, the Saints are much better off as puckish rogues. We already have plenty of po-faced games trying to give players the experience of being a crime boss ruling the underworld with an iron fist. Why should Saints Row try to be the 20th game to offer that experience when it can be the only experience allowing you, dressed as a Mexican wrestler wearing a clown’s face, to cruise through traffic at 100mph with a live tiger in the passenger seat?

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: Volition, Sperasoft Studio Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 22, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Neversong, Thomas Brush’s Coma Update, Never Gets Going

It has just enough bells and whistles to suck you into its world, but not enough to compel your immersion.

2.5

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Neversong
Photo: Atmos Games

Thomas Brush’s Neversong, a reimagining of his Flash-based adventure game Coma from 2009, is more expansive and deliberate than its predecessor. Formerly titled Once Upon a Coma, the game boasts an art style that’s less limited and more pointedly minimalist—all the better to accentuate the features and grotesqueries of the characters that fill our young protagonist’s world. The cohesive storybook narration better tethers this dark, Gorey-like nightmare to the real-world trauma that it unsubtly mirrors. And yet, Neversong still feels underdeveloped. There are some great items, characters, and visual effects on display here, but few leave a lasting impression across the less-than-three-hour campaign.

Red Wind Village’s denizens suffer from various mental illnesses, but Neversong superficially grapples with those afflictions. In fact, it’s just Peet’s rotund frenemy, Simeon, who serves a particularly active role—or, rather, roll—in the game, as his body dysmorphia is front and center as players maneuver him through the Spiderian Sewers. At best, one character’s obsession with parkour and another’s violent streak can be said to only tangentially influence the overall gameplay. And the fact that one villager has OCD doesn’t excuse all the repetitious backtracking, nor the recycling of a particular puzzle type involving bombs.

Even the good ideas feel squandered. It’s a smart decision to make all of Peet’s upgrades be everyday items, like an umbrella that helps him rise over air currents, or a skateboard that allows him to leap over gaps. The whimsical mundanity not only sets Neversong’s otherwise conventional gameplay apart from other adventure games, it also successfully conjures the intended level of childhood nostalgia. But short of being used to collect a few optional cosmetic outfits, these tools rarely function as anything other than a means of temporarily gating player progress. Outside of the Booty Bum Marsh, that Slugboard has no purpose, and the Bootybrella is useful only if you mistime a jump and need to glide. It’s disappointing to see hard-won goods like a creepy See n’ Say toy used for only a single puzzle.

Considering that Neversong’s last act takes place inside the Blackfork Asylum, it’s more than a little ironic that the game significantly suffers from a lack of commitment. Both at the beginning and end of the campaign, Peet is plagued by distortion effects that skew his sense of reality. Knife-wielding maniacs creepily and subtly start to appear in the windows of a repeating corridor; later, space itself warps and swirls as if Peet is stuck in some sort of time eddy, and the camera angle slowly tilts until the entire area is upside down. But these psychological flourishes are so fleeting that they feel almost out of place.

Neversong has just enough bells and whistles to suck you into its world, but not enough to compel your immersion. It’s a bit as if Brush has given players a coloring book, but only a single crayon, and so the game’s creativity ends up being flattened into a menial series of tasks. By the end of Neversong, the true story—or picture—behind Peet’s quest is arguably complete, but with just that one shade, it’s not particularly satisfying.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Atmos Games.

Developer: Atmos Games, Serenity Forge Publisher: Serenity Forge Platform: PC Release Date: May 20, 2020 Buy: Game

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June 2020 Game Releases: The Last of Us Part II, Disintegration, & More

Right now, we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

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The Last of Us
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The June gaming calendar remains on the light side, what with studios big and small still adjusting release windows in response to the shifting realities of COVID-19, which has, among other things, limited the physical production and shipment of games. If not for a particularly nasty plot leak, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II might still be in that distribution limbo, but we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

Our most anticipated titles of the month skew toward the violent, perhaps none more so than the long-delayed The Last of Us Part II, which focuses on 19-year-old Ellie, after settling with Joe in a thriving community of survivors in Jackson County, Wyoming, relentlessly seeking justice in the wake of a catastrophic event. Also of note is the Wild West-set Desperados III, a real-time tactics game that promises to leave players jonseing for creative murders, and Disintegration, a sci-fi shooter set 150 years into the future, where, after so much global catastrophe, humans are on the brink of extinction, with their desperate efforts to integrate themselves into robot bodies having led to much chaos. But this month’s games offer more than just savage thrills. Evan’s Remains, for example, features no enemies or weapons, just a soothing pixel-art aesthetic and a series of logic-based platforming challenges.

To help you find the right fit for your current mood, see below for trailers for our most anticipated games of the month, followed by a list of other noteworthy releases across all platforms. (Sound off in the comments if you feel we’ve overlooked anything.)


The Last of Us Part II (PS4) – June 19

The latest trailer for The Last of Us Part II showcases not just a grown-up Ellie, but a hardened one. No longer the young girl in need of Joel’s protection, she’s now taking hostages, chopping and stabbing human soldiers, and sobbing, bloody-faced and alone, in the darkness. The trailer ends with the 19-year-old bathed in red light, responding to a plea—“We could have killed you”—with a remorseless “Maybe you should have.” We’re beyond amped to see if the trailer’s subtle shifts between showcasing a survivor’s natural coping mechanisms and a monster’s mercilessness carry through into the game itself.


Disintegration (XB1, PS4, PC) – June 16

Between the infantry and mechs bum-rushing an abandoned farmstead and a robotic-looking protagonist who drily encourages his troops by suggesting that they “Don’t die,” it’s easy to see the traces of Halo lingering under the hood of Disintegration. Hardly surprising, given the involvement of Halo’s co-creator, Marcus Lehto. Based on gameplay footage, the feature that excites us is the prospect of gunning down foes from the cockpit of the game’s signature Gravcycle, a hovering, multi-gunned war machine from which hero Romer Shoal can both attack and issue orders to his unique three-person squad. It looks ambitious and explosive, and we hope it won’t turn out to be as empty as Anthem.


Evan’s Remains (PC) – June 11

Fans of Lost, take note. Evan’s Remains packs flashbacks, compelling dialogue, and a massive twist into its brief demo, which only leaves us wanting more. The way the narrative incorporates symbology-based puzzles that must be actively deciphered by leaping between platforms further warmly reminds us of the gameplay loops in To The Moon and the Zero Escape series. In all honesty, though, the demo hooked us from the first shot of its charmingly pixelated, sun-hat-wearing heroine: Who wouldn’t want to help her solve a mystery?


Desperados III (PC, XB1, PS4) – June 16

Each new glimpse of Desperados III further strengthens the impression that when this western is in full swing, it potentially operates as a delightful Rube Goldberg machine, with each of your five gunslingers using their unique abilities in tandem to stealthily murder their foes. We’re particularly enthused about seeing Isabelle Moreau in action, as she can use her voodoo to control hapless foes, though we also got a kick out of watching Hector Mendoza splashily brawl his way through a saloon and then later use a beartrap to disable a unsuspecting enemy.

June 2020 Releases

Little Town Hero (June 2) – PS4, Switch – Pre-Order
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (June 2) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Pro Cycling Manager 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Tour de France 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection (June 5) – PC – Pre-Order
The Outer Worlds (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (June 9) – PC – Pre-Order
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor (June 9) – PS4, Xbox One – Pre-Order
Ys: Memories of Celceta (June 9) – PS4 – Pre-Order
Evan’s Remains (June 11) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Warborn (June 12) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Desperados III (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Disintegration (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Burnout Paradise Remastered (June 19) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Last of Us Part II (June 19) – PS4 – Pre-Order
SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated (June 23) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Ninjala (June 24) – Switch – Pre-Order
Hunting Simulator 2 (June 25) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Mr. Driller Drill Land (June 25) – Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Phantom: Covert Ops (June 25) – Rift, Quest – Pre-Order
The Almost Gone (June 25) – Switch, PC, iOS, Android – Pre-Order
Fairy Tail (June 26) – PS4, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (June 30) – Switch – Pre-Order
Griftlands (TBA) – PC – Pre-Order

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Review: Trials of Mana, Despite Its 3D Makeover, Is Still Stuck in the Past

Its characters already lacked personality, and the 3D makeover is mostly successful at bringing that deficiency into sharper relief.

2

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Trials of Mana
Photo: Square Enix

The original Trials of Mana, released only in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 3, may have been a revelation way back in 1995, and in spite of its underdeveloped villains and trope-laden plot, but no amount of polish can change the fact that the remake feels stubbornly stuck in the past. With Square-Enix’s other April release, Final Fantasy VII Remake, you could see the love and care that went into not just recreating but reevaluating and deepening a classic. By contrast, this remake of Trials of Mana, which was re-released in its original Super Nintendo format as part of last year’s Collection of Mana, is all surface.

The facile nature of this remake is most apparent in the way it sticks to its original structure: You can pick only three of six protagonists at the start, which means that if you want to experience the others, or hear different dialogue combinations, you’ll need to replay an already repetitious game. Actually, you’d have to play through three separate times, as there’s a unique antagonist for each pair of heroes. Choose either Hawkeye, the spry dagger-wielding rogue from the desert thievedom of Nevarl, or Riesz, the tough spear-swinging amazon from the Wind Kingdom of Laurent, and you’ll go up against the Dark Majesty.

The other two evil factions are anticlimactically written out almost entirely off camera around the halfway point, making the whole thing feel rather meaningless. That this narrative is retained, without any embellishments to make each path feel more substantive, is profoundly frustrating, especially when you consider something like 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, which successfully differentiated between each protagonist’s overlapping playthrough.

The old Trials of Mana boasted richly textured pixel art and lighting that helped to set it apart from other video games of its era. Now it’s been given a cartoonish 3D makeover that somehow comes across as a flatter, more generic take on the cell-shaded anime adopted by such titles as Ni No Kuni and Dragon Quest, not to mention other Tales entries. The original game’s cast of characters already lacked personality, and the new visual redesign is most successful at bringing that deficiency into sharper relief. It’s an unnecessary makeover designed to brand the game as “new,” which only more starkly calls the old-school conventions into question, especially with key features like co-op play being stripped out of the remake.

That said, the revised combat is competent enough, and the characters boast varied fighting styles, from Hawkeye being able to nimbly leap between foes so as to exploit critical back attacks, to Angela unleashing massive area-of-effect spells from afar, to Kevin shifting into his lycanthropic form in order to literally go full beast-mode on enemies. It’s just a shame that big, splashy class strikes are what the game’s developers lavished the most attention on. Instead of improving the fundamental Trials of Mana experience, the remake just tacks on a moderately challenging but equally underwritten post-game scenario that opens up additional tiers of the core game’s class system, giving each hero a total of nine potential roles.

Would that the dungeons had received similar attention. These are still brief and samey regions that—occasional hazards like momentum-sapping sands or slippery frozen surfaces aside—serve almost exclusively as combat arenas. And the 3D rendering, again, only works to remind one of just how lacking it all feels. At the very least, the remake could have inserted a few new cutscenes to better fill in the motivations of villainous cyphers like the Dragon Lord, who wants to absorb the Mana Tree’s power because, I guess, that’s what bad guys do?

The game is at its best when pitting players against massive, colorful bosses, like pumpkin god Mispolm, who lashes out with scowling gourd-headed vine arms, or ghost ship captain Gova, who swims beneath the surface of his vessel’s wooden deck, popping up to unleash dark matter at you. But you’ll spend the majority of Trials of Mana going up against the same cutesy enemies, particularly in its repetitive, backtrack-heavy second half, where it’s not unusual to face room after room of wide-eyed baby dragons of various elemental types. The whimsy of these creatures with their punny names—the glittering Gold Bulette, the smiling pink Prime Slime, the half-hatched Eggatrice, the adorable Petite Poseidon—quickly dulls from repetition. That’s Trials of Mana in a nutshell: endearing, but not for long.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Square Enix, Xeen Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 24, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: John Wick Hex Puts You in a Not-So-Kinetic Baba Yaga’s Shoes

This is a game where the triumphs come from tiny marvels of efficiency and careful planning rather than kinetic skill.

3.5

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John Wick Hex
Photo: Good Shepherd Entertainment

A traditional third-person shooter feels like the logical foundation for a John Wick game. And just like the films, there’s enough going on beneath John Wick Hex’s surface to elevate it above most games where the relentless shooting is the only point. The latest from developer Mike Bithell both functions as an opportunity to embody the Baba Yaga at his most unrelenting and as a deconstruction of everything about how he operates while he’s on the job. Nonetheless, while there’s immense value to this approach, there’s also a nagging sense that John Wick has lost something in the transition from the big screen.

It helps that John Wick Hex managed to find a narrative conceit to divorce itself from the ongoing narrative of the films. The game takes place some years before John Wick met his wife and left the murder business behind. A supercriminal named Hex (voiced by Troy Baker) has kidnapped Winston and Charon (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, respectively) from the Continental Hotel, putting High Table’s power in check, and John—sporting Keanu’s likeness but not his voice—has been sent on a globe-trotting mission to take out Hex’s network of underlings before coming for the man himself at the Continental. Freed of the ongoing pressure of the films to find new ways to keep John tied to his former life, the game’s narrative is instead something of a running conversation between these three powerful figures on the forces that put John in that position to begin with. It’s not pushing a new twist to the narrative, but it works to give us a new appreciation of what’s already there.

That ethos also applies to the gameplay, which eschews the immediate thrills of a twitchy first- or third-person shooter for the constant deliberation of a grid-based strategy game. The lifeblood of it all is the timeline, stretching across the top of the screen, representing how long it will take John and any enemies in range to complete their actions. The key to everything is being able to take enemies off the board before they get a chance to react, and players get all the time they need to coordinate the exact dance of death required to eliminate everyone in range without taking hits. Both ammunition and health are scarce commodities, which also factor into the budget, as does Focus, the stamina stat required to pull off physical maneuvers such as close-quarters combat and rolling. Two shots from a gun will kill most enemies, but will that leave you short on bullets and too far away when other enemies come into view?

As a translation of all the things we know John Wick has done, the game is a weak facsimile. The cel-shaded minimalist noir art style is reminiscent of Suda 51’s brilliantly subversive Killer7, but the game’s minimalism results in the loss of visual stimulus we associate with the John Wick universe. There’s only so many times you can watch John perform the same judo flip to take down close enemies before you start wanting for something more impactful, given the much more innovative and diverse range of combat arts we see him utilize on the big screen.

Indeed, we never see the same takedown twice in any of the films, and it doesn’t seem like it would have taken much for this game’s engine to replicate that lack of redundancy. While landing shots with a gun feels suitably punchy, more often than not, the sheer kinetics of every stage feels more like a studio pre-visualization of a fight scene from the films than the definitive experience that allows you to inhabit a hitman at his most unstoppable. Even when, at the end of each stage, you get a stitched together composite of your run, without the pauses to sift through your menus and select options, the game comes off as cinematically broken.

There are games out there that deliver that experience on a gameplay level, most notably Superhot. John Wick Hex approaches that game’s design ethos of time moving when you do from the opposite direction: as a strategy game executed with action-movie sensibilities, where thought and deliberation can be strung together to create scenarios where your opponents don’t even get the chance to fire back. Every action costs more than just the wherewithal to press the right button at the right time. This is a game where the triumphs come from tiny marvels of efficiency and careful planning rather than kinetic skill.

Developer: Bithell Studios Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 5, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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