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Review: Monster Hunter World

Monster Hunter World will leave players too dizzy to really stop and think about its somewhat disquieting pitch.

3.5

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Monster Hunter World
Photo: Capcom

The Monster Hunter games seem to pride themselves on deliberately obscuring minute details of their mechanics, leaving it up to a player’s sheer curiosity and determination to fill in the blanks. Failing that, of course, there’s always crowdsourcing that knowledge from other players—something that’s ideal for, say, when you’re commuting on the train for hours a day, crammed in with like-minded strangers. Many of these aspects that define Monster Hunter as a series are things that wouldn’t find a foothold in Western gaming culture outside the PC until the last few years. It’s a perfect time, then, for Monster Hunter to reintroduce itself to those gamers, but also an even more perfect one to realize that the series—even in its slightly watered-down, newbie-friendlier present form—is still a deeply flawed, obtuse experience.

Within two minutes of starting Monster Hunter World, players are thrown to the wolves, with a cutscene flinging terms such as “Fifth Fleet” and “New World” and “Research Commission” at you, never once stopping to bring newcomers up to speed on what any of these things mean, even through the game’s plentiful but haphazard tutorials. Not that it matters too much—or, rather, that you want it to matter too much. There’s a story to Monster Hunter World, one involving a massive, ancient, igneous dragon that’s come to the aforementioned New World continent, and a garrison of hunters and researchers who’ve taken up residence there and must band together to stop it. But Monster Hunter World is structured in such a way where there’s so many mechanics to consider, so many quests to take on, and so much procedural housekeeping to do that most players will be left too dizzy to really stop and think about the game’s somewhat disquieting pitch.

New World’s humanoid bipeds have taken up residence in a place that’s hostile to their presence, killing most of the indigenous life in order to feed a ravenous arms and clothing industry. This is far from the most egregious example of a game never stopping to consider the ramifications of its premise, but it’s not as if Monster Hunter World exactly offers any other narrative substance to pick up that slack. Throughout the game, the quests are numerous but almost entirely amount to players having to “find this monster and kill it, possible a few more just like it.”

At least the game excels on the fine details of the hunt. You’re never given a direct waypoint toward your quarry, as you must track beasts throughout New World using their footprints, waste products, and lost body parts—a task that gets easier the more you learn about your targets over time. And your charming traveling companion, one of a race of bipedal cats called Palicos, can search the game’s environments for clues as well, often easing much of the busy work of looting everything from your surrounding area. The hunt itself often gets players more acquainted and aware of their environment in a way that more open-world titles could learn a thing or two from.

The actual act of killing is more of a mixed bag. On the plus side, players are given a fully stocked armory of weapon types from the start of the game. All armor and weaponry handle differently, granting various new abilities and ways to play. The options range from a bowgun that allows players to stand back from their quarry and unload, to a pair of twin blades that let you get up close and personal to a threat with flurry strikes. There’s also massive bladed weaponry, the coolest of which is a giant spear that allows you to pole vault above enemies and either come down on them with a slash or mount them and play rodeo clown for a minute, until you’ve calmed the creatures.

The problem here is the game’s—and the series’s—staunch refusal to even teach players how to effectively use their armor and weaponry. Each of your weapons has a satisfying heft and tangibility that wouldn’t be terribly out of place in one of the Dark Souls games, but many of the game’s monsters require the kind of precision and responsiveness that only a scant few of the weapons provide. Probably not coincidentally, those weapons are the weakest ones. Every quest grants enough loot to allow you to run back to the nearest Smithy and upgrade your armor and weapons, but unless you spend hours on end grinding, you’re never powerful enough to significantly damage a beast, or do it effectively enough to ever feel truly proficient in the game, nor are you ever told how to. Also like Dark Souls, non-projectile weapons wear out and become dull, which often means stopping dead in the middle of combat, letting a monster run away so you can sharpen your blade again.

Giving Capcom the benefit of the doubt, this seems to be borne out of an innate push to let the community at large, not a cold tutorial, lead players by the hand—to talk to each other, ask questions, communicate vague ideas in a human way. On paper, that’s a commendable idea. Anyone who wants to try their hand at hunting and fishing can run to Wal-Mart and buy a rifle, ammo, and a fishing line. And doing it right is something that you’re typically taught by friends and family. Monster Hunter World seems to want to emulate that concept in a small way by making the ability to call for help a major part of the gameplay loop, which would also be fine if the game’s labyrinthine menus didn’t make calling for help seem like a surgical procedure.

Taking down Monster Hunter World’s bigger monsters is still an ordeal when you have other players in your session helping you, with such beasts taking ridiculous amounts of damage compared to how much a single player can dish out. But three allies chipping away at your prey makes for a much less tiresome experience, where varied tactics, team chat, and out-of-the-box ideas can be employed without having to send your character back to the drawing board to grab a different set of weapons and gear.

There’s something to be said for that in the current landscape. Monster Hunter World is a game full of people all striving to achieve their common goals within a set of gameplay mechanics that doesn’t so much actively discourage going at it alone as encourage collective work, where the learning is never truly finished. To the game’s credit, it does this more organically and positively than any MMORPG currently out there—and, blessedly, without the ubiquitous specter of microtransactional greed. But to its detriment, without a compelling narrative to drive it on, it’s knowledge gained in service of nothing.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 26, 2018 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Last of Us Part II Is a Gory and Complex Feat of Empathetic Storytelling

The game displays a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the soul.

4.5

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The Last of Us Part II
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

The moment that Naughty Dog announced a sequel to The Last of Us, we knew a day of reckoning was coming. No matter how one felt about Joel, the grizzled protagonist of the 2013 game, it was inevitable that his actions—saving 14-year-old Ellie’s life at the expense of the human race—would have consequences. And the first and most expected of those consequences occurs not even an hour into The Last of Us Part II, when, four years after the events of the first game, a small militia manages to snatch Joel, and his surrogate daughter, after coming to his rescue, watches him meet a particularly grisly end.

Yes, of course, Ellie goes after Joel’s killers, a hunt that leads her—along with her ride-or-die girlfriend, Dina—to Seattle, where the militia is embroiled in a bloody civil war with an urban-agrarian pseudo-Christian cult known as the Seraphites. And all the while, the Cordyceps epidemic continues to roil, making new, hideous, screeching monsters by the day, and in even more horrifying, hard-to-kill forms than before. And, of course, the underlying message of the whole thing, belabored by so many zombie stories before this one, is that humans are the real monsters, and that it takes a certain innate viciousness to survive in a world of monsters.

Which isn’t to say that The Last of Us Part II gets too high and mighty about the ugly, gratuitous nature of revenge. If it was, the game’s violence wouldn’t be necessary, justified, or cathartic—and killing here is often all three of those things at once. This is a game that asks players to accept the multitudes of its heroes, its villains, and every other poor, suffering soul that Ellie and Dina encounter throughout their journey, about what it means to be another monster among monsters, and what purpose that grotesquery serves.

That, though, is still a hard ask for a game like this. As in the original, you sneak, scavenge, shoot, stab, and bludgeon your way through the world, and The Last of Us Part II is home to some of the most ferocious acts of sinewy, effective, and affecting violence in a video game, and they’re made all the more lurid and visceral by being rendered in unparalleled detail that’s consistent with the rest of the story. That’s even more egregious given that the story could have been just as effective without the game’s utter realism being an imperative by any means necessary, especially given the despicable, and well-documented, human cost of achieving that level of detail. And just like most of Naughty Dog’s forays into cinematic action games, what goes on in the cutscenes is only tenuously connected with everything going on in the rest of the campaign.

As a gameplay experience, The Last of Us Part II brings just the right amount of that Uncharted-like intensity into its every set piece. You’re still best served by sneaking around enemies instead of facing them directly, but unlike the first game, you’re also not utterly doomed by choosing to face them head-on. Being prepared and armed to the teeth is the real deciding factor here, and the player is given much more freedom to figure out how to best accomplish that. Do you take out your enemies with a shiv or a switchblade? Do you have the materials for a makeshift silencer? Are you so overloaded with ammo that you can afford to get loud? Or do you just make a mad dash for an exit, praying that the door isn’t blocked? Once you have set your goal, the overall approach to achieving it is up to you, and that’s a massive and welcome improvement over the first game.

The Last of Us Part II

Ellie and Dina in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Most of the gameplay takes place in a semi-open world that recalls that of Naughty Dog’s underrated Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The starting and end points of any given area are largely set in stone, but you can wander the ruins of Seattle across a wide expanse, and there’s an impressive number of fully rendered and true-to-life locations that you’re free to explore. Entire neighborhoods feel like real, once-lived-in places, frozen in time, derelict and overgrown. An abandoned music store isn’t just a depository for ammo and health items, with a few records strewn around, but a place that felt as if it was desperately looted during an apocalypse and now has been overtaken by vines and serves as a sanctuary for those who should need it.

The closest that the gameplay comes to elegantly and seamlessly pairing with the overarching story occurs in such places, where Ellie and Dina feel safe enough to sing to each other, or talk about old movies, comic books they’ve found, their families, and the like. Respite and genuine engagement with the game’s morality is also offered up by the periodic flashbacks, which fill in the gaps of time in between our leaving Ellie behind in 2013 and our glimpsing the wiry, flint-eyed killer she became. These sections are all playable, and range from beautiful moments of wonder and curiosity, even laugh-out-loud humor, to devastating flashes of revelation, to the game’s biggest and most meaningful curveball, when the entire climax is put on hold while players step into the shoes of the girl, Abby, who killed Joel and is now Ellie’s ultimate target.

One might feel an understandable sense of consternation when this shift in perspective happens in the game, as Ellie’s story is already too long for its own good by the time it reaches its logical climax. But Abby, who’s built like a shot putter and commandingly voiced by Laura Bailey, is a beautifully imposing and undeniably captivating presence. But more than this, Abby’s story represents a crucial narrative shift for The Last of Us Part II, not in the sense that it humanizes the enemies that Ellie has been taking out up to this point, but for the way it allows the game’s actual theme to reveal itself. You start the campaign thinking that the story is about revenge, when it’s really one about mercy, of the meaning of sacrifice and letting go.

We learn about Abby’s connection to Joel early on during this shift in perspective, but much of her story is set in the aftermath of his murder, once Abby has returned to her Seattle militia, the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), whose members are also known as Wolves, and life goes on as usual. But that changes when her ex-boyfriend, a fellow soldier named Owen (Patrick Fugit), goes missing, and Abby goes AWOL in order to find him. And that journey leads her to Lev and Yara, siblings and former members of the Seraphites.

The closest that The Last of Us Part II gets to true villains are the Seraphites, and yet they aren’t seen as just outright evil. Hard and fast details about why this hyper-conservative order is the way it is are thin on the ground, but we know not to have too much empathy for them when you find out they’ve sentenced Lev to die for the “crime” of being transgender. The second one of these people deadnames the poor kid before trying to shoot him with a crossbow, Abby’s story very quickly becomes a roaring, bloody act of defiance solely to allow Lev and Yara—and, by extension, herself—the opportunity to live a life free of these horrors. You may feel conflict about how many Wolves need to die so Ellie can get her revenge. But you feel much, much less of that the more you realize how much the Seraphites hold Lev in contempt for just existing.

The Last of Us Part II

Lev in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Even then, there’s a lot of blood spilled on the way to freedom, culminating on Abby’s side in one of the most breathtaking, anxiety-inducing action set pieces ever executed in a video game: a breakneck ride through a burning village that feels like the barbarous hate-child of Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind and the single-shot warzone in Children of Men. Once again, there’s a faint sense in these scenes of the even stronger experience that could have been, of a story being truly told through gameplay, not cutscenes. A sequence where Lev has to coax Abby through her fear of heights to cross a man-made bridge between skyscrapers is maybe the second most tense sequence in the game, and there’s not a single Seraphite or Infected to kill in it. It’s hard not to see the frequent shootout sections as a crutch preventing the developers from thinking of sequences that are more like this one, places to give the player something more to do than engage in stealth action.

That’s despite the fact that the game is certainly aiming for more with the cinematics, and how it paints Abby and Ellie on opposite sides of a gory existential crisis, one where Ellie is blindly screaming and clawing for a life that has purpose, and Abby actually finding it. Where The Last of Us Part II leads both of them is quite haunting, a place where uneasy, wrenching questions are answered, such as at what point do we determine the cost of hate, chaos, death, and vengeance to be more or less than the cost of simply stopping?

The risk that came with making a sequel to The Last of Us was the possibility of rendering the great ambiguous ending of that game null and void. To their absolute credit, the developers at Naughty Dog have crafted a story here that walks right into that fire, and wrestles with the implications and consequences of Joel’s lie in full. It’s hard not to trace every human failure in The Last of Us Part II back to that lie, and the strongest, most special moments here are examples of unmistakably human grace transcending that self-interest, even when the game is at its darkest. It’s in Ellie seeking comfort in her girlfriend’s arms to calm her shaking hands, Lev slowly discarding the shackles of his old-time religion, but sharing the parts of it that mattered with a frightened friend. It’s in forgiveness and acceptance, in all its various, excruciating forms.

These moments are myriad throughout this sequel, and they’re so unlike what you find in a game operating on the AAA level. The Last of Us Part II is still sending a very awkward message about how much mercy truly matters when so many of the campaign’s most complex, graceful moments are out of the player’s control, but the vast majority of its moments of cruelty—thrilling and righteous though they can often be—aren’t. That’s a failure of the creative space the game inhabits as a big, expansive blockbuster more than a failure of the game itself. But most importantly, it’s a problem only because The Last of Us Part II is a game that displays such a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the human soul.

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

Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 24, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)

Making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming.

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The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)
Photo: Square Enix

There are various reasons why the games on this list are our favorites of the year so far, but the key one is how many of them are so strikingly illustrative of how the old ways of gaming are increasingly evolving into something resolutely new. Doom Eternal and Streets of Rage 4 showed that small tweaks to well-established gameplay modes could breathe new life into beloved franchises. Countless technological advancements made in the 13 years since the release of Half Life 2: Episode 2 have allowed for the world of this iconic series to be realized anew, and in virtual reality, with Half-Life: Alyx.

Elsewhere, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only shows how far games have come graphically in 23 years, but also how storytelling sensibilities have shifted. Yes, the game’s battles are more active and strategic than ever, its characters more well-rounded, its environments more breathtakingly expansive, but it’s most impressive for the way its narrative engages with our memories and interrogates our expectations of what a remake should be.

Indeed, making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming. But sometimes what’s new today is simply what was unseen, or unheard, yesterday. An eraser is the dominant mechanic of If Found…, and how a trans woman from the west coast of Ireland is pushed toward erasure is its dominant theme. And The Last of Us Part II not only centers the experience of the queer surrogate daughter of the first game’s prototypical white male protagonist, it evinces a hyperawareness about the nature of violence in games and the world at large.

For those of us who’ve been playing video games since a young age, there’s something comforting about sitting with a great game and realizing that the medium has grown with us. Like a best friend, such a game sometimes even gives you a gentle ribbing, as in the way Lair of the Clockwork God addresses our evolving tastes and the medium’s growth head-on, constantly breaking the fourth wall to point out how it’s updating platformer and adventure conventions. And in 2020, when the world is continuing to predictably and catastrophically disappoint us, that this industry is still surprising and delighting us feels like a salve. Aaron Riccio


Alder’s Blood

Alder’s Blood (Shockwork Games)

Alder’s Blood’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, this game shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of Alder’s Blood. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. Here, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics game, implying that a godless world should not be coveted. Jed Pressgrove


Desperados III

Desperados III (Mimimi Games)

This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members. While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. Riccio


Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal (id Software)

Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw. Throughout, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Steven Scaife


Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)

Final Fantasy VII Remake is directly in dialogue with the player about what a remake can and probably should be, about how much of a waste it might be to proceed past the endpoint of this particular story—essentially the moment in the original where you’re allowed to freely explore the world outside Midgar—and realize that the journey and the outcome has remained the same. You’re given the chance to choose a different path, to face a literal hideous embodiment of the hands of fate in the game’s climax. It’s a forceful, kinetic statement—that this remake should not be bound by what we already know. And as monstrous as it can be, the symbolism of that gesture is incredibly daring. The game flips the script on the very idea of nostalgia being the only guiding creative force behind a remake, making it another enemy to be slain. The final hours of this game constitute an extraordinary act of subversion, actively challenging us through gameplay to expect more. Justin Clark


Half-Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)

Creating a sequel-slash-prequel to an iconic video-game series 13 years in cryosleep is just as an unenviable a task as launching a big-budget title using new technology that might evolve the entire medium, yet Valve delivers with Half-Life: Alyx. Returning fans to the sci-fi nightmare of City 17, a young Alyx Vance fights the omnipresent alien invasion alongside other members of Earth’s resistance, pulled into a plot to rescue a mysterious individual who disappeared some 20 years earlier. While Half-Life: Alyx’s core gameplay doesn’t deviate too far from that of other VR titles, Valve has refined the exploration, shooting, and physics puzzles that this series is known for into something that isn’t played as much as it is experienced. In Half-Life: Alyx, fighting the Combine is just as compelling as exploring the derelict buildings of City 17, and being able to lift and inspect and throw any object contributes greatly to the game’s feeling of immersion. Guns are reloaded by physically putting a new mag in and pulling the slide, marker pens draw on whiteboards, and liquid even sloshes around inside bottles. Boasting visuals that border on the photorealistic and intuitive 1:1 controls that feel entirely natural, Half-Life: Alyx pushes virtual-reality gaming to new heights. Ryan Aston


If Found...

If Found… (DREAMFEEL)

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans 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 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. 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. Scaife


Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife


Lair of the Clockwork God

Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio


The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)

The consequences of Joel’s stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the game’s sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellie’s eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joel’s surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellie’s vendetta, as she’s barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of “adults” playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well we’re doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this game’s grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned war’s crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston


Moving Out

Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)

Wacky mechanics and obstacles abound throughout the game’s 50 levels, from Dread Manor’s haunted floating chairs to the Flamethrower Factory’s titular deathtraps. Each level adds another zany complication to your job. While at first your biggest challenge may be manipulating large or oddly shaped furniture through tortuous hallways, the increasingly outlandish assignments soon become full-on obstacle courses that not only require players to optimize their routes, but to nimbly move in unison across collapsing walkways. All of these various challenges make Moving Out overwhelming in the best possible sense. Even better, accessibility options allow players to modify things like the number of hazards in or the maximum time for each level, which is nice if you want to play with friends of differing skill levels—and stay cordial with them after a failed level. While the game takes pains to differentiate itself from real-world moving, there’s one area in which it remains the same, and that’s in the way it nails that feeling of accomplishment where, at the end of a move, something that once seemed impossible has nevertheless fallen perfectly into place. Riccio

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Games

July 2020 Game Releases: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Ghost of Tsushima, & More

After a few exhausting months in the gaming world, July promises to be fun by comparison.

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Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

After a few exhausting months in the gaming worlde—from delays to disappointments, and one particularly grueling release—July promises to be fun by comparison. Take, for instance, Iron Man VR, whose highest purpose seems to be just to allow players to exhilaratingly fly about, zapping enemies out of the sky. And while the ambitious Ghost of Tsushima may be modeled after a violent historic event—the first Mongol invasion of Japan—gameplay trailers have been sure to emphasize all of the peaceful, entertaining options provided for exploring the artistically rendered open-world island of Tsushima.

Even Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise, the unexpected sequel to a cult survival-horror game from 2010, looks to be cultivating a sense of humor between its moments of darkness. (Is this the first horror game to allow its protagonist to skateboard between destinations?) And, of course, there’s Paper Mario: The Origami King, whose colorfully absurd bosses, like Box of Crayons, suggest that the latest game in the series will be a pure delight.

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.)


Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) – July 17

The latest Ghost of Tsushima trailer opens with protagonist Jin Sakai learning that an honorable samurai always looks his enemy in the face, and almost ends with a shot of him skewering a guard through a screen door. We’re excited to explore the contrast between Jin’s two schools of training—the head-on, stance-driven swordsmanship of a Samurai and the stealthy assassination techniques of a Ghost—and to see how Jin’s toolset holds up across this open-world action-adventure game. The game also promises a phenomenally immersive—and historically accurate—depiction of the 1274 Mongol invasion of Japan, though we’re most looking forward to wallowing in all the visual flourishes that characterize the game outside of skirmishes. Just watching the way wind effects are used to whip Tsushima Island’s vibrant red, purple, white, and golden foliage through the air, it’s a credit to just how good this game looks that we’d even consider playing through in the black-and-white Samurai Cinema mode.


Iron Man VR (PSVR) – July 3

Some games sell themselves, and that’s certainly the case with Iron Man VR, whose trailers largely stick to one simple promise: that glory comes to those who fly like Iron Man. Okay, maybe two simple promises, because in addition to the latest demo showcasing the way you can skim along the surface of the ocean and swoop through a cloudy sky, it also lets you fight like Iron Man. We’re already impressed by this demo’s aerial set piece, which has you freefalling from a plane and using your suit’s gadgets to execute emergency repairs. We’re dizzied, in the best possible way, by the potential of this VR experience.


Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch) – July 17

We’ve never been so intimidated by origami as in the first shot of the Paper Mario: The Origami King trailer, which turns the usually charming Princess Peach into a creepily creased bit of papercraft. Lest you worry that this means the Paper Mario series is losing its trademark humor and charm, Peach immediately cuts the tension with a pun: “Your replies are all paper thin!” What “unfolds” in the trailer suggests that this could be the biggest Paper Mario yet, with Bowser appearing as a potential ally and sights of 3D deserts and oceans for Mario to traverse. At the very least, we’ll be checking this one out just to see how it pulls off epically comic boss battles against office supplies like Tape.


Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing In Disguise (Switch) – July 10

The original Deadly Premonition was a mind-trippy survival-horror/detective game that played a bit like Twin Peaks meets Silent Hill, and by the look of things, the last decade hasn’t changed director SWERY’s sensibilities at all. Instead, it’s given him a larger sandbox of references to pull from, with the voodoo-tinged Louisiana setting and dual timelines suggesting that he’s a fan of True Detective as well. Of course, it’s hard to put SWERY in a box. After all, the stylish Bond-like trailer for this game is cryptically all over the place, with the image of a man plummeting through red mists, clarinets, and a twerking ass, giving way to a gleaming golden skull and flashes of everything from blood and snakes to hurricanes and what seem to be ninjas. With the game seemingly throwing so much at the wall—for instance, you can skateboard through town—we’re absolutely fascinated to see what sticks.

July 2020 Releases

SINoALICE (July 1) – iOS, Android – Pre-Order
Trackmania (July 1) – PC – Pre-Order
Infliction: Extended Cut (July 2) – Switch – Pre-Order
Marvel’s Iron Man VR (July 3) – PSVR – Pre-Order
Catherine: Full Body (July 7) – Switch – Pre-Order
CrossCode (July 9) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch – Pre-Order
Elden: Path of the Forgotten (July 9) – Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise (July 10) – Switch – Pre-Order
F1 2020 (July 10) – PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
NASCAR Heat 5 (July 10) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Death Stranding (July 10) – PC – Pre-Order
Rocket Arena (July 14) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Hunting Simulator 2 (July 16) – PC – Pre-Order
Radical Rabbit Stew (July 16) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Drake Hollow (July 17) – Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Ghost of Tsushima (July 17) – PS4 – Pre-Order
Paper Mario: The Origami King (July 17) – Switch – Pre-Order
Into the Radius (July 20) – Rift, Quest, Vive – Pre-Order
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (July 21) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Destroy All Humans (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Grounded (July 28) – Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Othercide (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Pistol Whip (July 28) – PlayStation VR – Pre-Order
Skater XL (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Monster Crown (July 31) – PC – Pre-Order

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Review: Xenoblade Chronicles Earns Its Definitive Edition Moniker

The most impressive thing about the game is still the strength and specificity of its vision.

4

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Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
Photo: Nintendo

Even for those who never played Xenoblade Chronicles, elements of the game will feel instantly familiar. The broad strokes of the story are certainly nothing new, with chosen boy Shulk wielding a mysterious blade, the Monado, against a race of robotic enemies called the Mechon while fighting alongside his ragtag group of friends. But most of all, the game was integral to Nintendo’s entrance into the realm of open-world gaming. Developer Monolith Soft would go on to assist with the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the Xenoblade Chronicles echoes are all but unmistakable in that game, which demonstrates the same sprawling approach to an explorable space.

Though the game originated on the Wii, its size and scale has scarcely been diminished by the march of time and technology. Indeed, the sense of scope is baked right into its very concept, with one of the all-time great video game settings: the ecosystems growing atop the corpses of two titanic deities, the Bionis and the Mechonis, frozen forever in lifeless conflict. The most impressive thing about Xenoblade Chronicles is still the strength and specificity of its vision, a dense world transcending any familiar hero’s journey. The very air glows in the dark by the light of the world’s ether, the cliffs and rocks jut out at strange angles with an alien sort of beauty, and one deity always looms large in the sky, opposite its opponent.

In retrospect, some of the touches that are used to make the game feel like a coherent world don’t totally withstand close scrutiny, from the glowing blue orbs that stand in for every type of collectible to the general lack of conflict between the various creatures that dot the landscape. But despite such limitations, Xenoblade Chronicles still feels massive thanks to the breadth of its design, for the way it emphasizes its wide variety of fauna by leaving huge disparities in size and strength between them, peppering the environment as much with docile creatures as with looming monstrosities that might kill you in a single blow.

Though Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition now features an auto-run as a concession for the sheer sprawl of each location, your traversal remains constantly engrossing and involved. You climb, you swim, and you dodge certain creatures, or pass peacefully through herds of others depending on, say, whether a mother dinosaur is around. Experience point rewards nudge you to explore the map, to poke around in dangerous areas and find new landmarks, basking all the while in Monolith Soft’s imaginative art design rather than keeping your nose to the ground, hardly looking up while you sift for inane crafting materials.

The various townsfolk you encounter may have rudimentary schedules and routes by today’s standards (and the standards of the time as well), but our impression of these people truly inhabiting this world is confirmed by their having names and, especially, meaningful relationships, all logged on a screen called the Affinity Chart. It’s just a menu, but it’s that one more detailed step than many similar games will go, even today. Xenoblade Chronicles thrives based on the sheer amount of thought put into it in the first place, and that quality has only been clarified with time, with what is now so much distance from the original release.

Through abilities to fast travel or change the time of day, the original tempered its sense of place with a certain level of convenience. In the face of the world’s scale, these shortcuts often felt necessary, and the Definitive Edition introduces changes that similarly keep tedium at bay without turning the game into a mindless series of chores. Menus are now more coherently organized, while the user interface now includes health bars and notifications when, say, you’re in the right spot to get extra damage for a back attack. But perhaps the most welcome change is the vastly improved quest system, which marks relevant monsters and items on the map and even lets you set an active quest to plot routes to quest givers and destinations.

This Definitive Edition also comes with a new scenario, Future Connected, that continues the main story. Yet for as welcome as it is to return to certain characters, this new stretch of story never feels particularly essential, as it lacks much of the base game’s stunning environmental design and features some spotty voice acting. But, then, that base game is still very much the attraction here, from the gameplay improvements to the rerecorded versions of an already superb soundtrack to the graphical upgrade, which gives the memorable characters more expressive faces and the environments more detail from a distance. In every possible sense, this release of Xenoblade Chronicles earns its Definitive Edition monkier.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Golin.

Developer: Monolith Soft Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: May 29, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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Review: Desperados III Is Perfect for Gunslingers Without Twitchy Fingers

While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, each scenario feels distinct.

4

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Desperados III
Photo: THQ Nordic

Because the average western so often revolves around big, tense standoffs between cowboys with itchy trigger fingers, it’s almost a relief that Desperados III eschews all that rootin’ tootin’ machismo. Given the prominence it gives to real-time tactics, consider the game a thinking person’s western, more puzzler than action extravaganza.

This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members.

That’s not to say that Desperados III lacks the tropes of your traditional western; short of a poker game, it has those in spades. Over the course of the 16-mission campaign, players will find themselves using dynamite to thwart a train robbery, breaking up a wedding with a gatling gun, escaping a mining prison camp with a minecart full of gunpowder, and kidnapping a rich tycoon. It’s a bit like playing through a collection of the genre’s greatest hits, but thanks to the novelty of the tactical framework and the wide range of characters, it never plays out in a derivative fashion. There may not be anything new or particularly deep about the way in which roguish Cooper and wily Kate slowly fall for each other as he attempts to save her ranch, or the way she aids him in his quest for revenge, but their interactions are well-voiced and neatly developed with organic mid-mission observations. It especially helps that Kate is no damsel in distress, even though her main function—as a sexy distraction—is a bit retrograde.

The game’s writing is so sharply detailed that characters come to be defined by more than just their unique skills and abilities, and you come to know them more as they open up about themselves depending on the mission. It’s particularly hard not to fall for the burly trapper Hector Mendoza, given the way he so lovingly speaks about his precious bear trap, which he calls Bianca, and curmudgeonly explains his rationale for being unable to swim. And when Cooper alone first interacts with Doc McCoy, the latter comes across as a mere archetype, tersely refusing to get involved in anything he’s not being paid for. But in later missions, when he’s paired up with spirited voodoo practitioner Isabelle Moreau, who endearingly dubs him “Sunshine,” you’ll come to see his steely front for the fear of intimacy that it is.

While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. No sooner have you mastered using Kate’s flirtatious disguises to lure guards out of position than you’ll find yourself in a situation where she doesn’t have a costume, or isn’t with your gang, and you’ll suddenly have to come up with other ways to advance, such as using McCoy’s long-range (and silent) sniper rifle or Isabelle’s poison darts, which let her temporarily possess a target.

Many missions require players to further adapt to using non-lethal or indirect actions, particularly those set in civil zones like the small town of Flagstone, Colorado; the bustling streets, brothels, and docks of New Orleans; and a gala in a massive, cliffside New Mexican estate. In some cases, players may even need to sneak around eavesdropping in order to figure out how to proceed. Environments, too, often force a change in tactics. Muddy swamps and sandy mines are especially dangerous, as you’ll leave footprints behind, and nighttime encounters require players to find ways to disable light sources.

If there’s any fault to be found here, it’s a certain rigidity. Compared to Hitman 2, which allows you to find numerous paths to perform an assassination, Desperados III begins each mission by walking your team through a pre-established plan. And enemies are as much a slave to this as players, as they have no real AI, and move in completely predictable patrols. They work on automated loops, so your window of opportunity never closes; a guard who wanders off to take a piss will comically continue to do so, over and over again, until you make your move.

At times, Desperados III gives you the illusion of choice, such as your being able to reach a building through one of two streets, or to take one of two paths through a canyon to a goal. Which is to say, when it comes to completing certain objectives, there’s little room for your creativity to be stirred. For instance, you can’t use a torch to set a guard ablaze, nor can you burn a barrel or a haystack hiding spot—unless the game specifically states otherwise. In the game’s restrictive language, a torch exists only to burn an existing pool of oil, and no other use will do. It’s still fun to figure out how to get past each new configuration of enemies, but the game’s coolest feature, a 64x-speed end-of-mission replay that iconographically shows how you navigated the map, ends up a bittersweet reminder of your own constraints.

While there may be a missed opportunity here for some big-picture tactics, the individual, self-contained puzzle-box encounters are each discretely entertaining. As a puzzler, then, Desperados III thrives on its rigidity, particularly in a series of optional missions, the Baron’s Challenges, that serve to break up some of the more complicated stages with some short-and-sweet tests of your mastery of specific skills. These levels demonstrate that not all restrictions are bad. In fact, one particular challenge in which players can only use environmental effects to kill their targets is a highlight, with chains of distractions akin to a Rube Goldberg machine required in order to set the stage for some very happy “accidents.”

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

Developer: Mimimi Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 16, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Persona 4 Golden Is Better Served As a Cherished Memory

Its occasional pizzazz, including Shoji Meguro’s blissful J-pop soundtrack, is undermined by how hard it often is to actually look at the game.

3

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Persona 5 Golden
Photo: Atlus

In the time it takes for Persona 4 to allow players to even walk freely around the dry, rural town at its center, you could blow up a reactor in Final Fantasy VII Remake, grab a horse, slay a bunch Moblins, and reach Calamity Ganon’s doorstep in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, collect two or three gym badges in Pokémon Sword and Shield, or decide the fate of the good people of Edgewater in The Outer Worlds. You could even have plotted a successful route for the Phantom Thieves to steal Coach Kamoshida’s heart in Persona 5 if you know what you’re doing and don’t waste any time on any sidequests.

Indeed, it will take you six hours of playtime before you get into a fight in Persona 4 that isn’t part of a cutscene, and for every 30 minutes of actual gameplay, there are 90 where the game is narratively spinning its wheels. There are games—even JRPGs—that finish in the time it takes for this one to let you touch more than the button that lets you advance the text box. That was bewildering when Persona 4 was first released in 2008 on the PlayStation 2, aggravating in 2012 when Persona 4 Golden came out on the Vita, and utterly maddening in 2020, especially considering that its direct sequel did everything right in the same year.

In fairness, that’s a deliberate design choice. Your initial lack of agency is meant to dovetail with the idea that you’re living out a year in the life of your silent teenage protagonist, who’s just moved to the sleepy village of Inaba out in the sticks, where everything moves slower. Here, when something exciting happens, it stands out all the more. And when excitement occurs in the game, it’s in the form of a series of murders ripped straight out of The Ring: A mysterious television program seems to broadcast at midnight, allowing shadowy figures to snatch people and murder them in TV World, an abstract place where repressed emotions grow malignant and cross over into the real world. As the protagonist and his friends start to discover what’s happening to the hapless victims, they awaken to special powers through the titular personas—modeled after characters from Japanese folklore—that allow them to both combat the shadows and contend with their own repressed feelings.

That’s a solid premise, and when Persona 4 Golden finally kicks into high gear, with its young heroes essentially playing the part of a Japanese Scooby Gang, it has charm in spades. The cast in particular is a wacky menagerie of colorfully characterized teachers and students, with an endearingly twee ensemble of misfit teenagers and village weirdos following the protagonist into battle. And that charm is much easier to appreciate with the option of hearing their voices in native Japanese instead of the stilted English dub. The central mystery even has a Twin Peaks vibe to it, as the town’s deep, dark secrets manifest in bizarre, wildly imaginative ways.

Funny enough, even considering how silly his introduction is, the chirpy Teddie, essentially the Scooby-Doo of your gang, ends up having one of the more poignant arcs of the whole game. And when Persona 4 Golden finally gets you into a proper dungeon and pits you against random enemies, the same old Persona loop of needing to find enemy weaknesses to exploit in order to prevent an opponent’s turn—by decisively stringing your ensemble’s efforts together as a team—is gratifying. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the combat feels so milquetoast in comparison to the visual riot of every Persona 5 encounter.

The devil is in the details, though, and in between everything endearing and compelling about Persona 4 Golden is hours of mind-numbing tedium, from the randomly generated copy-paste dungeons that take longer than necessary to complete, to the activities and social links, few of which connect in any meaningful way to the central story, thus making it all seem like padding for padding’s sake. Yes, life in a rural town can be boring, but the game isn’t good at homing in on the way that rural boredom can feel meaningful and peaceful the way that Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley do. Rather, boredom is the brick and mortar that holds Persona 4 Golden together between short spurts of gameplay, and it kills your investment in the plot.

This is all exacerbated in a woefully optimized PC port that retains the original versions’ eye-watering motion blur, with no option to disable it, and stuttery cutscenes, even on rock-solid hardware. That’s particularly frustrating given how stylish and imaginative the game can be when you’re in TV World, from the DayGlo bathhouses to the pixelated 8-bit castles to the goth-psychedelic strip clubs. All of that pizzazz, including Shoji Meguro’s blissful J-pop soundtrack, is undermined by how hard it often is to look at the game.

Somewhere, maybe in the same kind of alternate universe that figures into Persona 4 Golden’s storyline, there’s a 25-to-30-hour version of the game that’s set in the same little town, tells the same cute, twisty supernatural murder mystery, and offers the same thoughtful approach to combat, but where there’s never a dull moment. That would be a truly golden version of Persona 4. But what we’ve gotten here is a title that mostly shows it was better off staying as a cherished memory on the Vita instead of resurrected as a dated, exhausting relic on PC.

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

Developer: Atlus Publisher: Atlus Platform: PC Release Date: June 13, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Language, Partial Nuditym, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Disintegration Puts Old First-Person Shooter Ideas in a Shiny New Shell

The game’s attempts to distinguish itself from other first-person shooters ultimately feel superficial.

2.5

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Disintegration
Photo: Private Division

Romer Shoal, like many humans in the future envisioned by Disintegration who’ve had their brains placed into robot bodies, sets himself apart from his brethren by wearing a stylish leather jacket. Similarly, V1 Interactive’s debut title tries to distinguish itself from other first-person shooters with a slick hook that places the player somewhat at a remove from the action, as Romer streaks above battlefields in his one-man aerial vehicle, a Gravcycle, that backs up his comparatively tiny ground troops. Unfortunately, Romer and Disintegration’s attempts to carve out unique identities for themselves ultimately feel superficial.

The Gravcycle itself is at least well-designed and enjoyable to handle. The vehicle is capable of short bursts of speed that allows it to dodge in any direction, and while restricted to hovering above land, it’s capable of rising up to 16 meters in the air—all the better to scan upcoming enemy emplacements and chart out a course of engagement. And the game has its moments of impressively kinetic action, as when you’re juking through the tunnels of a subterranean jail or darting for cover beneath ionic umbrellas, lest Romer’s ship be disabled by sporadic EMP blackout pulse. But Disintegration is largely mired in dull, repetitive sieges (or defenses), where the only thing that significantly changes is the background, from a mid-desert scrapyard to the glistening, water-slicked canyons of Iceland.

The more you play Disintegration, the less it has to offer, at least throughout its single-player campaign. Take, for instance, Romer’s crew, up to four of whom accompany him on each of the game’s missions, and who can at any time be given tactical instructions by pinging locations and units or by manually triggering their skills. At first, his fellow outlaws seem to possess distinct personalities, wardrobe items, and armature. But once they’re reduced to tiny figures on the battlefield, they all feel exactly the same—an impression amplified by the similarities between their special moves. One character, Seguin, stands out by wielding temporal pulses that can create a slow-motion field around foes, but the rest are just equipped with varying forms of explosives, like concussion grenades or mortar fire.

That sameness extends to your enemies. Though the terrain changes throughout Disintegration, there are only so many times you can fight, say, a pack of ultra-armored Rhinos or go through the multi-stage takedown of a massive Thunderbird before it all starts to feel stale. Worse, your only showdown with main antagonist Black Shuck occurs at the halfway point, after which the game proceeds as a long stretch of anticlimactic story beats.

Disintegration tries to keep things fresh by modifying the design of the Gravcycle between missions. One engagement might find you equipped with powerful rockets and a sluggish frame; another might give you a nimble body but weak twin machine guns. But the changes to the speed, armor, and power of the Gravcycle, or a series of optional objectives, have negligible effects on the gameplay, at least on lower difficulties levels. Your capable AI crew will handle just about everything for you, so long as you revive them when they’re downed, and with the exception of certain enemy classes, like snipers or other Gravcycles, most units do negligible damage. In this regard, the whole campaign comes across as an extended tutorial for the nine different crews found in the Multiplayer mode, from the Nano Emitter-wielding healers in the King’s Guard to the machine-gun-blitzing, samurai-themed Lost Ronin.

The best parts of Disintegration actually occur between missions, in the brief monologues that these characters deliver, should you choose to visit them in the hangar. Seguin, who uses no personal pronouns, explains that posthumanism has allowed them to finally assume a fitting identity, and Six-Oh-Two provides a heartbreaking rationale not only for his odd-sounding name, but why his exoskeleton is so massive. These imaginative, human, world-building moments are what make Disintegration stand out from other sci-fi shooters, and there should be more of them. How ironic that a game that purports to be about fighting against conformity ends up giving in to a stultifying homogeneity.

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

Developer: V1 Interactive Publisher: Private Division Release Date: June 16, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: Evan’s Remains Is a Unique, If Much Too Brief, Puzzle Platformer

The scarcity of the game’s puzzles is frustrating, because, slight repetition aside, every one of those puzzles is cleverly designed.

3

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Evan’s Remains
Photo: Whitethorn Digital

Decked out in a cute orange sundress and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, Dysis, the protagonist of Matías Schmied’s Evan’s Remains, looks more prepared for a tropical vacation than she does for an adventure. That, though, is somewhat fitting in the case of this enemy-free, logic-based platformer that strives to be something more than your typical adventure. And yet, the game too often comes across as an overly laidback vacation, with too much time spent passively looking at things as opposed to actually interacting with them. The game’s just over two hours long, the majority of which you’ll spend reading dialogue bubbles as opposed to actively solving the game’s puzzles. Moreover, its casual visuals—lush, pixelated fields of red flowers and moonlit beaches—undercut any sense of danger, even once Dysis starts running into strangers on her supposedly deserted island.

Dysis’s progression along the island’s beach is pretty linear, as you’ll read some text, move to the next section, then read more text. Occasionally, one-screen logic puzzles appear, breaking up the text much like illustrations scattered throughout a novel’s pages. And like such illustrations, these puzzles, which take the form of giant monoliths left behind by an ancient civilization, visually describe what you’ve been reading about. According to Clover, a fellow explorer who Dysis runs into, the stone platforms jutting out of these pillar-like structures function collectively as a giant hieroglyph that spells a message that’s rumored to lead to a hidden treasure. And plot-wise, flashbacks sprinkled throughout the game operate a bit like the monoliths, as each new interaction shown between Clover and a self-obsessed vagrant named Vincent peels back a bit more of the twisty plot, particularly with regard to the island’s true purpose and why Dysis, of all people, was specifically asked to travel there.

The story of Evan’s Remains benefits from the puzzles, since the titular man, whom Dysis has been sent to find, is exactly the sort of reclusive, eccentric genius who would probably get a kick out of them. But those puzzles don’t always benefit from the narrative. The message that Clover is seeking to reconstruct is only 28 words long, with each monolith representing one of those words. That’s a far cry from the hundreds of puzzles found in games like The Witness, where the various symbols you pick up in various places eventually all start getting used in unison to modify one another and make for increasingly complex puzzles. It doesn’t help that one puzzle in Evan’s Remains representing the word “the” is repeated several times. This is narratively understandable, given that each puzzle represents a word and that some occur more than once in the message. But this limited vocabulary comes at the cost of showcasing a wider variety of puzzles. It also means that the revelations that occur after Dysis and Clover decode the final puzzle have to be presented in an entirely non-interactive way. By design, there aren’t any puzzles left to support the remaining plot twists.

The scarcity of the game’s puzzles is frustrating, because, slight repetition aside, every one of those puzzles is cleverly designed. It’s fun to try and decipher the color-coding and etched symbols for each type of platform, so that you can then plan a proper route to the top. For instance, as Dysis leaps off a standard platform, it recesses into the wall, and when she lands on a step marked with a bowtie-like infinity symbol, all of the plain platforms reverse their current state, either springing back out again or vanishing from sight. To scale one level, she’ll first have to make every platform recede so that, once she hits a certain platform, they all pop back out to make a clear pathway to the top. As the plot gets twistier, introducing a warp-gate technology and some hidden identities, so, too, do the puzzles grow more complex, with symbols appearing that allow you (or platforms) to travel between points or which can alter other symbols. Working out the tricks for each new sequence of platforms mirrors the way in which Dysis, and by extension the player, is deciphering the island’s own properties.

It’s admirable that Evan’s Remains resists the urge to pad out its plot with superfluous puzzles. But it goes too far in doing so, given the long stretches of exposition between each monolith. This serves neither the puzzles, which are too rare, nor the characters, who, apart from Clover, end up severely underdeveloped, the result of having only a few between-monument scenes in which to appear. Given that there are already two plot-removed bonus puzzles in a post-credit ode to Kickstarter backers, the addition of a New Game+ mode could have gone a long way here. Not only could it have given players an excuse to revisit earlier plot points, but a series of remixed, harder levels could have better satisfied rabid puzzle-solvers, all while still remaining true to the essence of the 28-word message you’re trying to reveal.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Whitethorn Games

Developer: Matías Schmied Publisher: Whitethorn Digital Platform: PC Release Date: June 11, 2020 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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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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