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Review: Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

Mutant Year Zero feels most of all like a promising start for something potentially greater.

3.0

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Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
Photo: Funcom

The influences on Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden are easy to spot. With protagonists called “Stalkers” who scavenge a post-apocalyptic “Zone,” the game draws a thick, direct line to the Russian novel Roadside Picnic and its 1979 film adaptation, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s in the details where things change, namely the nature of the protagonists: mutants who can walk, talk, and shoot just like normal humans, only one is a pig named Bormin and the other is a duck called Dux. The world of the game isn’t inundated with such characters either, as more or less regular-looking humans coexist alongside Bormin and Dux, such as Selma, an early companion with a small horn.

Mutant Year Zero’s mechanics also owe a large debt to Firaxis’s XCOM reboot. Battles against opposing factions play out in turn-based fashion as characters take cover, maneuver to new positions for a better shot, and mumble “overwatch” as they dig in and prepare to shoot whatever moves during the enemy’s turn. Much like the talking animals distinguish the game’s setting, the strategy features a unique wrinkle: The Zone is explored in real time from a top-down perspective, as the mutants scavenge for guns, armor, or various forms of currency to purchase guns and armor. Once you’re near enemies, and perhaps after you’ve moved each character into a strategic position, you can ambush them by switching to turn-based combat, potentially taking them down silently to get an edge in the upcoming battle.

Enemy stragglers are never far from a main group that generally comes with greater numbers (and more formidable health bars) than your mutant squad of three. This imbalance means stealth is key. Ambushes allow you to engage the enemy on your terms, such as Dux sniping from atop a ruined train while other squadmates fire on the most powerful opponents before they have a chance to run for cover. But the enemy’s strength ensures that any initial control of the battlefield never lasts long, as a mutant might go down, have its cover blown up, or spot enemy reinforcements beyond the treeline.

Just about every battle in Mutant Year Zero is an exhilarating struggle only moments removed from complete failure, and it’s this thrill that largely sustains the game through its shakier mechanics. But as Mutant Year Zero wears on, the time it takes to scout an area for the 20th time grows tedious. Stealth kills grow mindless as you page through the multiple commands necessary to get characters into position and to open fire. Exploration becomes a chore as the early drip-feed of new techniques, armor, and guns goes dry in the mid-game, leaving little use for scavenged currency beyond the same handful of expendable items like grenades or medkits.

The writing might have filled in the gaps here to suggest that there was some point to exploration beyond looking at moss-covered objects, hoping your flashlight catches a glint of scrap you’ll probably just hoard in case you need a medkit. Notes that fill in the backstory are few and far between. The world may, in typical sci-fi fashion, be riddled with proper nouns, but Mutant Year Zero struggles to ascribe anything a sense of importance, a sense of history. It mostly traffics in those hoary “I wonder what this used to do” exchanges of all post-apocalyptic fiction when someone looks at a fridge or something.

At its worst, the writing doesn’t even capitalize on its main hook: the animal characters. Beyond their musings about the potential function of a pizza place, the mutants lack distinct personalities beyond a small pool of deeply obnoxious battle quotes, where they fire their guns while saying things like “Not today, dickwipe!” or “Say my name, jizzwipe! It’s Farrow!” A huge duck in a top hat with a sniper rifle shouldn’t be nearly as boring as he is here.

The game’s dour setting fits its desperate, ambush-centric battles like a glove, but beyond that, the Zone and its inhabitants are little more than an under-realized aesthetic. Mutant Year Zero feels most of all like a promising start for something potentially greater. Indeed, for as much as the game offers an intense, occasionally brilliant spin on turn-based strategy, it’s tough not to imagine how a sequel could improve the writing and the exploration to realize what is, at this point anyway, mostly just a lot of potential.

Developer: The Bearded Ladies Publisher: Funcom Platform: PC Release Date: December 4, 2018 Buy: Game

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Review: Contra: Rogue Corps Cannot Outgun Its Classic Predecessors

Perhaps its efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges.

2

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Contra: Rogue Corps
Photo: Konami

Known for its relentless pace, high difficulty, and over-the-top machismo, the Contra series has been unapologetic about its action identity for more than 30 years, to the point where the manual for 2007’s Contra 4 mocked the very notion of save points. Contra: Rogue Corps, by contrast, features a save system, gear upgrading, level gaining, and a hub in which players can access various game modes and features, including upcoming DLC. In short, it offers the whole industrialized shebang. And so, this latest Contra feels as if it lacks an identity altogether—other than the sense that it’s obviously, tediously modern.

Set years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars, Rogue Corps allows you to select from one of four characters, including a giant minigun-wielding panda. As always, the goal is to blast a plethora of enemies throughout, with a more significant opponent waiting for you at the end of each mission. Unlike Contra III and the other mainline entries in the series, the camera’s main position here is a top-down angle, though the perspective will shift to over-the-shoulder from time to time, and the game utilizes a twin-stick shooter control scheme. Also different is the general stage design. While Contra built its reputation on aggressive run-and-gun action, Rogue Corps is more akin to 2016’s Doom, where a level tends to funnel the player toward individual arena battles that, once completed, unlock new paths.

This type of structuring isn’t inherently bad, but Rogue Corps doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy with it. The environments aren’t very dynamic; the occasional destructible fuel barrels and sudden door openings are more than expected at this point. And the way the game leans on familiar mechanics makes the proceedings feel predictable. For one, there’s a dodge maneuver, one of the most timeworn of gaming conventions, that you’re supposed to spam in order to escape enemy crowds, maintain distance, and stun individual threats. And like several of the “stronger” foes in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, many of the bosses here can’t overcome that tried-and-true diagonal dodge that places the hero right behind the baddie, the soon-to-be recipient of much, much damage. Your adversaries’ limited attack patterns can also be recognized and memorized quickly, which leads to monotonous bouts of attrition.

Rogue Corps desperately wants to appear hip to its target audience. The audio more than confirms this pandering approach, with plenty of glibly voice-acted, profanity-littered dialogue, an odd turn for a franchise that up to this point has preferred to let the action do most of the talking. Although you’ll hear a classic Contra melody here and there, the music usually becomes tense in a Metal Gear Solid sort of way during pivotal battles, and the lightly jazzy track that plays at the game’s main hub sounds like it came straight out of Persona 5. That’s a pity, as the scores to the best Contra titles are intent on keeping your blood pumping with a masculine fury, and without reminding you of other games’ musical compositions.

Perhaps Rogue Corps’s efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges. Judging by the content of this release, the bosses are as recyclable as plastic water bottles. One level’s map is practically a carbon copy of a prior one, only with more (of the usual) threats to extinguish. And be prepared to constantly switch between two weapons, whose tendency to overheat means that being conservative with firepower is often the best way to win out. Rogue Corps hopes that everyone likes it, and wishes to achieve this by implementing ideas that can be easily tested and approved by modern fans. Which is to say that the uncompromising design that made the original Contra a formative touchstone is missing in action.

Developer: Konami, Toylogic Publisher: Konami Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Borderlands 3 Is a First-Person Shooter with No Point of View

The game is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

2.5

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Borderlands 3
Photo: 2K Games

Futuristic settings in many works of fiction often exist for creators to reflect on the present, but Borderlands 3 takes that approach much too literally. Instead of commenting on modern-day America, the game essentially just mirrors it, wrongly thinking that an exaggerated tone is a suitable substitute for an actual opinion. This makes for shotgun satire that’s loud but scattershot. Borderlands 3 is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

Over the course of nearly 100 missions designed primarily as loot-delivery systems, you’ll meet a stand-in for Tommy Wiseau at the Sin-A-Plex, overload a bandwidth-throttling CPU by uploading “dank” memes, and kill the murderous carnival hosts Penn and Teller, err, Pain and Terror. Yes, that’s Penn Jillette’s voice, and he’s joined by a bunch of outstandingly over-the-top voice actors, but no aspect of Borderlands 3 is ever really saying anything of import. It’s all just endless references to popular culture, which is why you get random side missions that just mash together a panoply of things, like the one where you enter a Bachelor-like dating competition that’s decided with a Fortnite-like battle royale. There’s plenty of first-person shooting and punching, but very few punchlines, unless you count the forlorn last words of slain foes, such as “I never took up painting!” and “Jokes on you…I was in massive debt!”

After three games—four if you count the non-FPS Tales from the Borderlands—the Borderlands series really might not have anything left to say, even if it does offer you the opportunity to choose between four new protagonists, each with their own unique action skills. There’s Zane, the Irish-accented Operative who has the ability to swap places with his own digital decoy; FL4K, who permanently gets a beastly companion; Amara, who has status-afflicting Siren magic; and Moze, a mech-riding Gunner. But after a few hours, the novelty of their class mechanics wears off, making the remaining 30 hours of the game’s campaign a tedious retread of everything you’ve seen and done before in the series.

The developers at Gearbox Software do their best to avoid that franchise fatigue by finally allowing players to leave Pandora and travel to four other planets, each of which has its own enemy types and architectures. Athenas, for instance, is a monastery besieged by the shield-heavy miscreants of the Malawan corporation, and Eden-6’s bayou is infested by fleshy saurians. Pandora has wide open deserts that are perfect for vehicular combat missions—even if the game’s rigid controls make driving through those environs remarkably unfun—while Promethea, Atlas’s corporate homeworld, is a narrow grid of urban streets and high-rises. But if interplanetary travel is handled well in Destiny and Mass Effect, insofar as each of the planets in those games feels uniquely alien, the whole Borderlands 3 galaxy shares the same pottycore mise-en-scène. No matter where you go, you’re still scrounging for loot in toilets, teaming up with underwear-clad characters, and taking shit from foul-mouthed villains.

It’s a shame, because there’s a sense that underneath all this more-is-more fan service—just about every character who’s survived a prior Borderlands game plays some role in this one—there’s a deeper, less-cartoonish story than the one it provides about Troy and Tyreen, the murderous twins who’ve used their violent livestreaming to appeal to and unite Pandora’s bandits. Their antagonistic antics are dulled by repetition, so much so that it’s jarring to see Tyreen suddenly get serious in the game’s final act, set on a long-lost alien planet. Then again, even here at the end of the galaxy, the game still makes room for two bickering robot butlers and a “homeopathological” doctor, which suggests that while the series’s overarching plot is capable of expanding and maturing, the game’s tone is incapable of growing up.

Even the things that Borderlands 3 dwells on, like gunplay, end up feeling unfocused. That comes, in part, from the game’s intent on advertising “over a billion guns,” a feat achieved only by counting the tiniest statistical shifts between otherwise identical weapons as a difference. Because you’re always out-leveling gear into obsolescence, you can’t just focus on one type of weapon, as you have to be flexible in shifting between whatever randomly comes your way.

Do you want a small-caliber pistol that deals armor-destroying damage and is manufactured by the Children of the Vault, and as such doesn’t need to be reloaded? Too bad, here’s a long-range sniper rifle that has to charge each shot, deals flesh-melting incendiary damage, and was made by Hyperion, which provides a damage-boosting shield when aimed. There’s no guarantee you can play the way you prefer, or that you’ll have the right gear for a tricky boss, and attempting to micromanage one’s unreasonably small inventory slows the game’s fast pace to a crawl. (It’s worth noting, too, that you can’t pause in co-op; if you attempt to find a safe place to sort through your gear when in a squad, you’ll likely be left behind.)

In the course of mercilessly mocking everything, Borderlands 3 inevitably opens fire on itself, in a mid-game side mission involving the dudebro adrenaline-junkie Chadd. His quest perhaps too well encapsulates the game’s target demographic, as well as its gameplay; essentially, Chadd loves danger and stunts, and is constantly throwing himself into foes or off of cliffs, instantly dying and then waiting around for you to revive him. In turn, much of the game focuses exclusively on careening around enemy-filled arenas, filling the screen with massive explosions and color-coded status damages until you win (or die) in a colorful cacophony of action that you can’t clearly see. Borderlands 3 hurdles over this extremely low bar that it sets for itself, but like the game itself in regard to just about everything, that’s not saying much.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 2K Games.

Developer: Gearbox Software Publisher: 2K Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Inense Violene, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Daemon X Machina Takes the Exhilaration Out of Piloting a Mech

All that’s cool about flying a mech has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible.

2

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Daemon X Machina
Photo: Nintendo

In retrospect, the dog should’ve been the first clue. Once you get to control Daemon X Machina’s customizable human character—who all but vanishes into the background after you’ve created it—you’ll find a pooch standing by one of the kiosks in the mech garage where you start missions and perform upgrades. The dog will follow you around, but there’s no way to pet it, and no way to interact with any other being unless they send you an email or you start a mission. This is a game with a social space that has a poor sense of being social.

Daemon X Machina is a mech game where all that’s cool about flying a giant world-saving robot has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible. Aside from that dog, the next inkling you get that something is off about the game is the sheer fact that you’re thrown into a far-future world where cartoonishly gruff mercenaries spout terms and references to in-universe events and conflicts before you have even the slightest clue of who you are, and what exactly has happened to the world.

Eventually, enough breadcrumbs are dropped during in-game dialogue for you to piece things together, and an early cutscene does show that part of the moon broke off and slammed into the Earth, triggering some sort of extinction-level event that had the secondary effect of turning our planet’s artificial intelligence robots against us. A few human survivors, though, developed special powers, allowing them to pilot mechs whose sole job it is to quell the AI rebellion. The game doesn’t come close to rising to the level of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but anime-style mech stories have rarely, if ever, needed more than this to make an impression.

The problem is entirely in the execution, as the bulk of Daemon X Machina’s plot has to be gleaned from the motormouth CPU pilots who fight alongside you in the early missions. And if you’re still trying to figure out which button equips weapons to different arms while someone is explaining how mercenary factions operate, you’re entirely out of luck. It also doesn’t help matters that, once you’ve fully grasped what’s going on in Daemon X Machina, the story settles into a mediocre merry-go-round of stock anime characters blathering on about their duty, internal politics, and long-standing grudges between missions—drama that’s impossible to care about since most of these characters will appear for one stage, then disappear for the next two or three hours of gameplay. Underwhelming characters and dialogue can be generally ignored but not when there’s such an overwhelming abundance of both at all times.

Nothing would’ve been as effective at muting the narrative problems than the core gameplay being stellar, and sadly, it isn’t. You’re allowed to fully customize every aspect of your human character, your mech, and the weaponry you carry into battle, but what should’ve inspired fond memories of games like Virtual-On, MechWarrior, or even Titanfall mostly brings back painful memories of Bioware’s Anthem. You can glide across the ground, fly through the air, and carry three types of weaponry into battle. But despite a vast arsenal of guns, melee weapons, and missiles available to the player to buy or loot from fallen enemies, very few of them are exhilarating to use during the first half of Daemon X Machina; actually selecting and switching them around is a pain thanks to a highly unintuitive UI, and only a scant few are even effective against the game’s most annoying and prevalent enemies.

Even just your basic, run-of-the-mill assault rifle has to struggle to fire on one specific target, and what passes for lock-on targeting is just a red square that tells you where your next shot will go. There are powerups you can buy and develop, as well as, weirdly, an ice cream shop where every scoop gives you performance enhancements, but the gains provided are paltry. Eventually, some of the cooler higher end weapons do start to make gains in terms of effectiveness, but the promise that Daemon X Machina becomes somewhat more tolerable after some 15-to-20 hours of gameplay is a hard pill to swallow.

Ultimately, the best part of Daemon X Machina boils down to the very simple act of collecting new mech pieces and putting together an impressive-looking custom build. It’s the one joy that doesn’t have a rather annoying price of entry, but it’s also a joy you could get faster just by walking to the local anime shop and buying a Gundam model kit.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin.

Developer: Marvelous Inc. Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: With Gears 5, the Quintessential Dudebro Shooter Series Grows Up

Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel captivating and disturbingly intimate.

4

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Gears 5
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

While it’s not as drastic a reinvention as 2018’s God of War, the latest title in the Gears of War series is a striking course correction. Actually, it’s just Gears now, thank you very much, and with this new streamlined name also comes quite a few other signifiers of refinement and maturity. That feels like a Herculean feat considering how gleefully dumb Gears of War has always been. There’s still a little bit of that lunkheaded so-called charm in Gears 5, what with the campaign centered around hulking, armored Marines using their chainsaw guns to slice snarling lizard men in half, but it’s a game clearly made by people who’ve done some soul-searching, and actively looked for ways to break that certain toxicity that the games in this series have been enslaved to since the beginning

Right from the start, Gears 5 makes a concerted effort to open the series up to all, with new options like Boot Camp set up to teach players not just how to play the game, but offer a long-overdue rudimentary and forgiving primer on basic shooter-game strategy. It’s an appreciable effort on Vancouver-based developer the Coalition’s part to bridge the ever-increasing gap between those who want to play Gears 5 as a hobby and those approaching it as a job. You go from there to the campaign, which eases players in with a “Previously on Gears of War…” montage straight out of a primetime-TV drama. That leads into a couple of breezy, familiar hours strolling through fiery civilian war zones as J.D. Fenix, previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix’s cocky son. But this isn’t actually his story. Things take a dark turn when J.D. makes a tactical error that, in one of the game’s more harrowing sequences, costs innocent lives, and after a time jump, we take control of the game’s true protagonist, Kait Diaz.

We follow Kait, played with incredible depth of character by the always exceptional Laura Bailey, as she heads out into an expanse of frozen tundra looking for answers to the questions raised by Gears 4’s cliffhanger ending. The road to those answers has some effective, haunting twists and turns. Beyond Kait’s own problems as a soldier suffering from severe—and quite believable—PTSD, the search unearths some abominable truths about the wars that the titular Gears have been fighting for so long. And this doesn’t just concern the one against the Locust, but the past wars only vaguely touched upon in previous games in the series. The journey ends up being a grisly tableau of military atrocities, attempted genocides, abuses of power, Geneva Convention violations, and just plain old broken trusts and bitter betrayals. Surprisingly, no matter how much it undercuts the “oorah” bravado of the previous games as being a show of empty jingoism, the game’s recounting of these stories never flinches.

Fundamentally, though, this is still Gears of War, and the paramilitary darkness at the heart of this game is well balanced against the baser joys of making a Swarm head explode, and with a well-timed quip capping the carnage. And yet, the sense of Gears trying to grow up is pervasive, as evinced by the surprise reveal of two major chunks of the game which are semi-open world, traversable via land skiff. It’s akin to the wide open stretch of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. There’s not as much to do here as there is in, say, your average Ubisoft title, and it’s honestly a bit of a relief. Gears 5 is a case of quality over quantity, and the side missions actually have the sense of urgency so many open-world titles lack outside of their main plots.

Across Gears 5, the gameplay feels far more cohesive and gratifying than it ever has in a Gears of War title. Swarm enemies remain strong, but they never feel like exceedingly boring bullet sponges, and there’s intelligence and cunning behind most enemy placements and strategies. Fortunately, you also have a new toy to play with: Jack, an intuitive floating robot companion who essentially acts as a one-stop shop for the game’s best new combat ideas. Jack is at once a spare healer, armorer, puzzle-solving mechanic, and guerilla fighter toolkit, offering a unique and intuitive range of new mechanics that finally put players on equal footing with the Locust/Swarm’s bag of technological tricks, instead of constantly at their mercy.

Anyone looking to go back to feeling woefully underprepared and outmatched at every turn, however, can find solace in the multiplayer, where always-enjoyable mainstays like Versus and Horde modes are joined by Escape, a sort of Gears take on Left 4 Dead. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the tender loving care that obviously went into making the game’s campaign feel like a situation under your team’s control gives way to a stinginess of resources that makes most Escape matches feel like the worst examples of survival/crafting games.

Escape stands out in particular because of just how much work has gone into making Gears 5 otherwise accessible. The Gears of War series has been broken of its worst habit: trying to put up the front of being better or harder or more stoic than the rest, allowing the deeper implications of its lore to come to the forefront. Despite dropping “of War” from its title, Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel not only bloody and cathartic, but also captivating and disturbingly intimate on a human level. The quintessential dudebro shooter has evolved with the times, and the world is so much better for it.

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

Developer: The Coalition Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform: Xbox One ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Telling Lies, for Better and Worse, Lets You Choose Your Own Interpretation

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused.

3

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Telling Lies
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

As a game, Telling Lies is an exercise in frustration, an objectiveless search through over 200 nonlinear full-motion videos that span a period of 15 months. But as an interactive narrative experience, a collection of intimate, slice-of-life moments in the vein of Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, game designer Sam Barlow’s latest is an impressive and defiant act of literal storytelling, a sort of choose-your-own-interpretation.

At the heart of Telling Lies is a mock operating system that’s running a program called Castle, which operates a bit like the logic-based OS from Barlow’s previous game, Her Story: Type in a word or phrase, and in return you get the first five videos, chronologically speaking. After five or so hours, you unlock an option to have the mysterious protagonist you’re controlling, who you can see reflected in the monitor at all times, do a WikiLeaks-like upload of all the footage viewed to date, and doing so triggers the game’s anticlimactic ending.

Whereas you view short clips throughout Her Story, Telling Lies, which is more than four times as long, has you view entire scenes, some nearly 10 minutes. Moreover, given that these scenes are only ever from a single camera at a time, hearing both sides of a long-distance Skype-like conversation doubles the time spent with each scene, assuming that you listen closely enough for the context clues in one side of the conversation that will let you search for and access the other side. Putting together these moments provides short-term investigatory goals, stymied only slightly by the refusal to let a player jump to the start of a video clip, forcing you to manually, agonizingly slowly rewind the footage from their search term.

More impressive in scope than Her Story, which played out over a few weeks and was driven by the format of a police interview, Telling Lies follows, over the course of 15 months, the various interactions that a man, David (Logan Marshall-Green), has with three women: Emma (Kerry Bishé), Max (Angela Sarafyan), and Ava (Alexandra Shipp). Players journey down a particular rabbit hole of search terms and videos depending on which moments interest them most. That may be the dramatic detailing of a murder, an espionage effort, or a planned act of eco-terrorism, or it could be video of a father bonding with his sleepy daughter over a loose tooth, a mother attempting to cope with her absent husband and overbearing momma, or a couple falling in love. The game doesn’t treat any of these moments—the majority of which are impeccably, naturally acted—as red herrings, and doesn’t judge you for how you take them in: as a voyeur, a family-drama junkie, or a political hacktivist looking for dirt on the government.

And yet, Telling Lies feels as if it’s missing a crucial element of gamification to unify these discrete threads, something of the way in which Tim Follin’s Contradiction or Rockstar Games’s L.A. Noire task players with carefully watching a person’s body language in order to suss out a lie and proceed through the game. Here, you can too easily accidentally stumble upon key bits of plot while searching single words as benign as, say, “deserve.” In the absence of goals, the post-game profile that summarizes what you found, how you found it, and what that says about your interests, almost comes across as the results of a BuzzFeed quiz.

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused. The game’s structure risks the most rewarding parallels between characters or connections between scenes being missed by players who simply never stumble upon them. Depending on your path through Telling Lies, the subtext of any given moment may lay fallow; for one, David’s two tellings of the story of Rumpelstiltskin to his daughter, eight months apart, could rightly be dismissed as 17 minutes’ worth of throwaway bedtime stories. Obfuscation is fine, up to a point, but when you don’t even know that you’re missing a needle, you’re just searching through a haystack for its own sake.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Sam Barlow, Furious Bee Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Shows Players an Obtuse Age

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy, and that’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in the game.

2.5

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Photo: Private Division

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy. That’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. From a design perspective, the first title from the Montreal-based Panache Digital Games brilliantly shows you firsthand, again and again, just how frustrating, difficult, and deadly life was for our hominid brethren some 10 million years ago in Africa. But everything that was frustrating, difficult, and deadly back then is what drags down the gameplay, which so rigidly commits to unevolved mechanics that Ancestors is often just a slog to experience.

Even on the easiest difficulty setting, death is permanent, and you can’t create multiple save slots. This feels especially punishing given how reliant the game is on trial and error, and how frequently those errors lead to death. In the game’s early hours, as you attempt to navigate your hominid from a third-person perspective through the perilous jungle, you’re likely to freeze during a chilling rain, bleed out after a saber-tooth tiger or eagle attack, starve, or, most embarrassingly, die of thirst or exhaustion because Ancestors doesn’t tell you how to drink water or sleep. This is a game that insists on obfuscation, and it isn’t shy about bragging about it. “We won’t help you much,” it declares in the introduction to its campaign.

Over time, you’ll come to realize that you can use your senses—sight, sound, and smell—to scan for objects, animals, and foods. This scanning of the game’s surroundings allows the player to separate things into two categories—things you’ve seen before, and things you haven’t—and the meat of the game is converting the latter into the former. And as Ancestors progress, players will also need to alter objects, either making them into tools that can then be combined with other items or into Minecraft-like stacks that can then be built on.

These initial discoveries can be exhilarating, but they’re also kind of arbitrary. If you time an alteration properly, you can strip the leaves off a frond, leaving you the stem, which you can use to interact with a beehive. But that’s the only tool you can use to gather honey; you can’t just plunge your hand into a hive, beestings be damned, or use a stick, even though it looks identical to a stem. Elsewhere, you can build a sleeping area by stacking leaves on top of one another, but this action isn’t made available to you until you’ve stacked five leaves in a pile.

When you successfully groom a fellow hominid, rhythmically plucking parasites out of its fur, a meter tells you that you’re bonding with it. But no such indication is given for stacking objects, or banging rocks together, which may leave you to maddeningly wonder if you just need to try something a sixth time, or maybe a seventh, or if Ancestors secretly requires you to sharpen that stick with a different tool. The game’s simple iconography goads you, suggesting that there’s another use for, say, a coconut, but damned if the folks at Panache Digital are going to hint at what you’re doing wrong each time you try to open it.

All of these frustrating elements are at least justifiable given the specific circumstances that Ancestors is emulating. (There were definitely no walkthroughs 10 million years ago.) But the game also artificially gates players, punishing you for knowing too much. There are no shortcuts for teaching your hominid things that you’ve already learned in a failed campaign, and even when you progress in the game by breeding children and choosing to advancing to the next generation, you can’t pass on all of your hard-won genetic abilities. You’ll have to relearn things the long way, such as scanning objects one by one until you’re at last able to unlock Form Recognition, which lets you identify multiple objects at once. Since you need to advance generations in order to bank your evolutionary experience, it feels as if Ancestors is constantly punishing your progression, pushing you back to the basic hook of looking, smelling, and hearing things in the environment and scanning every object.

What feels novel for a few hours of your first playthrough grows onerous with each new generation. You may not need to spend millions of years in real-time evolving your ancestors, but that doesn’t make Ancestors feel any less like an era’s worth of repetition.

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

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Review: Astral Chain Vibrantly Super-Charges the Same Old, Same Old

If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

4

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Astral chain

Platinum Games’s Astral Chain takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where much of the Earth is unlivable, and where what remains of humanity has huddled together inside a single megacity, the Ark. Which isn’t to say that life inside the Ark is safe, now that its citizens are being abducted or killed by interdimensional monstrosities called the Chimera. Which is where the city’s police force comes in. Its new sector, Neuron, seeks to combat the problem, and with a secret weapon that tethers police officers to a powerful half-breed Chimera known as Legion, harnessing each other’s powers and standing up against their common enemy. Throughout the game, you play as twin siblings—only one selectable and customizable at the outset—who seem to have a special connection with the Legion, and who’ve been reassigned to Neuron to help their police captain father fight the Chimera.

On paper, there’s complexity to be mined out of that premise, and the game’s world is striking enough to deserve it. Especially of note is the nightmare realm the Chimera call home, a dominion of shifting landscapes and foreboding architecture. In execution, though, Astral Chain’s narrative and design are rather juvenile. That’s to be expected considering how much of the game’s tone and aesthetic is informed by modern anime, particularly evident in the characters and secondary missions outside of the main plot. Still, it’s a genial and generally good-natured derivativeness, and the story isn’t without its occasional surprises and affecting character beats. Ironically, the weakest part of the game is the plot, which amounts to fairly typical “I will create the ultimate being” nonsense that isn’t connected to the characters in any meaningful way. It also doesn’t help that whichever version of the protagonist you choose is silenced for the rest of the game while the NPC sibling gets all the best dialogue.

Once you’re out in the field, however, things are decidedly less simple. Where NieR Automata went out of its way to delineate its styles of play throughout, Astral Chain is a wildly ambitious shotgun blast of concepts centered around the idea of having a companion constantly tethered to the player. Platinum’s deceptively simple button-masher mechanics are inextricably tied to the Legions, as the vicious biomechanical beasts are literally fused to your right arm. Combat and traversal require a sort of mental rewiring on the player’s part, because you have to think of yourself not as one person, but two, and work in synergy to do absolutely anything of note. Doing the most damage involves hitting a specific QTE prompt to command your Legion to get involved in the action. Obstacles may force you to yank yourself around corners where your Legion is waiting. The most unruly enemies will require being bound by the titular chain, with both your characters circling or clotheslining an attacker.

This isn’t the first game to try out something like this; most notably, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons laid out a dual narrative using a single controller with subtle craftsmanship. Combat and traversal in Astral Chain dance astonishingly hand in hand, but it’s a dance that the Switch’s Joy-Cons can barely contain, and often don’t. Fighting with your Legion is fluid enough, though a few of the secondary attacks for each Legion type—which you will need to execute on the fly during heavy fighting—require you to stop, stand still, take aim and slash/fire. The Switch’s controls are highly versatile, and the gyro sensors picking up a bit of slack with the aiming helps, but there’s limits to that versatility before it becomes straight-up clumsy.

Still, any one of your powers with the Legions would be enough to anchor an entire game, and there’s literally dozens of them at your command that come into play in and out of combat. Much of your time outside of fighting is spent doing honest-to-god detective work, gathering clues, talking to citizens, and making conclusions, using most of those same mechanics to solve cases. A hellhound Legion can sniff out a perp’s trail, and a Legion with massive arms can punch blocks to complete puzzles. Your analysis computer can access a police database to figure out someone’s age on the fly, or figure out if they’re lying. There are so many different styles of play and ways you can utilize the tools at your disposal, it’s a miracle that the game doesn’t collapse under its own weight. And yet, each of Astral Chain’s mechanics adheres to the guiding principle for many of the Switch’s best exclusives: If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

On its surface, Astral Chain feels like a regression back to the same old same old of lightning-fast chaotic combat and anime tropes. But that’s just a small aspect of a game that’s trying and largely succeeding at doing so much more. Astral Chain’s narrative is straightforward, but it’s one that’s enriched by alluring character moments. Early on, you’ll find yourself flailing and button-mashing everything around you, until you’ve figured out how to integrate your Legion into your routine. And if the game’s platforming feels obvious at first, the tricky discovery of a shortcut—a power-up, maybe even the best way to escape some of your larger enemies—will change your mind. Once Astral Chain moves past its opening, a literal anime intro complete with electronic J-pop theme song, it reveals that the powerful creativity that gave birth to NieR Automata is still alive and running rampant at Platinum Games.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin.

Developer: Platinum Games Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Drug Reference, Language, Use of Alcholol, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: In Blair Witch, There’s No Greater Horror than That of the Glitch

Not only does the game cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

2

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Blair Witch
Photo: Bloober Team

Many a video game has capitalized on our connection to dogs, though few have grappled with the complexity of that relationship. From Secret of Evermore to Fallout to Call of Duty: Ghosts, the loyal canine typically exists in the world of games to sniff out hidden items and attack their owners’ enemies. Blair Witch tries to break from the ranks of such titles by foregrounding the needs of a German Shepherd named Bullet, who requires regular attention from his master, Ellis, and keeps the former cop from going insane during a rescue mission in the woods. The potential for the player to feel a unique kinship with Bullet is certainly there, but the pooch too often functions as nothing more than a tutorial-like guide—and that’s assuming one of the many technical flaws that plague Blair Witch don’t get in the way of him doing the bare minimum of leading you through the game.

Like Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, the game centers around a mysterious force haunting the Black Hills Forest. Developer Bloober Team introduces the psychologically unstable Ellis, a man dedicated to his search for a child, Peter, who disappeared in the woods. In flashbacks, we catch a glimpse of Ellis raging against his girlfriend when she seeks his attention and love. As such, when he disregards the orders of those in his search party due to his obsession with finding the lost boy, one senses that he’s trying to redeem himself for past failures. At the very least, there’s more emotional intrigue hiding behind the game’s premise than there was behind the 1999 film.

Ellis’s backstory, though provocative on the surface, isn’t particularly enriched by the man’s interactions with his trusty canine sidekick. Through an abrupt pop-up message, Blair Witch announces that the status of Ellis’s fragile psyche is linked to how close he stays to Bullet as you scan the woods for clues about Peter’s disappearance. You’re also informed that if you don’t consistently pet Bullet, something unfortunate might happen. So, pet you shall, with each touch activating a generic mini cutscene of Ellis rubbing Bullet that, at times, is preceded by a seconds-long glitch, thus giving the false impression that Ellis is hesitating to reach out to the dog. Indeed, the prescribed, awkward nature of the petting sequences fails to establish any sense of an authentic bond between human and animal.

Ellis and Bullet also seem emotionally disconnected from one another as a result of the latter’s mechanical function. If the player doesn’t know where to go, Bullet can be called to go on a search for items that can put him on Peter’s trail. For much of the game, you simply follow Bullet like you would a tutorial arrow. Unlike the pet-like griffin Trico from 2016’s The Last Guardian, the dog’s behavior is simply a convenience. Trico’s scattershot obedience—as when, by design, the griffin becomes perturbed by a foe and fails to pay attention to the player’s commands—made it appear like a genuine living thing in video-game form, whereas Bullet suggests little more than a computer program that helps one complete tasks.

That contrivance is only magnified by a variety of technical issues that undermine the game’s ability to immerse players in its atmospheric woodland setting, much less in the relationship between Ellis and Bullet. During my experience with Blair Witch, Bullet once glitched out of one part of a chapter in which he was supposed to be present—as was subsequently confirmed by a reloading of the chapter. Even when important characters don’t inexplicably vanish into thin air, the game’s framerate is rarely consistent, no matter what the scene is or what graphical setting you select. But the biggest problem here is the possibility of a game-ending crash, which occurred multiple times during my playthrough, effectively cordoning off a significant portion of the story. Which is to say that not only does Blair Witch cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by ONE PR Studio.

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Bloober Team Platform: PC Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan Is a Fun, If Slight, Party Toy

One hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

2.5

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Photo: Supermassive Games

Working from the interactive, choose-your-own-horror-movie framework of 2015’s Until Dawn, Supermassive’s latest game opts for something smaller and shorter, as well as more easily replayed. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is framed through a man known only as the Curator (Pip Torrens), who’s seen walking through a hallway of moving pictures, a kind of spooky version of the Eyewitness educational series, before coming to rest in his library and pulling one book from the shelf. Man of Medan is meant to be the first of several such short stories, though it gets The Dark Pictures off to a choppy start.

The game’s setup—a group of young divers are kidnapped by pirates and taken aboard a wrecked World War II-era vessel—is an excuse for players to steer multiple characters through a creepy place loaded with jump scares. And despite some irritatingly stiff character movement in many tight corridors, Man of Medan is otherwise adept at dreaming up a miniature house—or ship, as it were—of horrors. With severed heads dropping from out of nowhere and mottled gray hands withdrawing from the foreground to a particularly jolting soundtrack cue, Man of Medan is very much in the mode of “fun” horror.

Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden’s dialogue is hardly either of the two’s best work, though the filmmakers supply appropriately cheesy, if forgettable, lines to augment an atmosphere that might make you jump or hold your breath but is certainly never meant to be overpowering with real dread. The tone works to keep things entertaining, though a late reveal torpedoes much of the tension even as it invites you to change the way you interact with the game.

The formal multiplayer component is perhaps the best example of Man of Medan’s rather light ambitions; after assigning characters to different players, you take turns passing the controller around when prompted to explore an environment and complete quick-time events. The story will change, with some characters even dying outright depending on which rooms you enter, what choices you make, and whether you miss certain button presses. There are also options to go through the story alone or in online co-op, where another person concurrently plays through separate scenes as other characters for an outcome ultimately shaped by both players.

Man of Medan, though, is more functional than it is particularly clever about implementing different play styles and branching story paths. The intro feels especially slow in a social setting where other people are waiting their turn, and the game’s reliance on reading documents in small font to learn the ship’s backstory doesn’t feel totally suited for communal play. Other problems are more general interface foibles. For one, while the game is quite short and notes pivotal decisions as “bearings” in the pause menu, there’s no easy way to experience different story permutations short of playing through the whole thing again, unskippable cutscenes and all. Likewise, a screen listing character traits and relationships seems to imply that the way everyone behaves toward one another may change certain outcomes, but how (or even if) this takes place is so poorly conveyed that the screen feels totally arcane despite near-constant notifications that traits or relationships have been updated.

If Supermassive’s latest lays out a respectable template for future horror dramas, it hardly impresses with its execution. Anthologies are often inconsistent in quality, and where The Dark Pictures and its post-credits sequel tease are concerned, one hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Control Serves Up Mind-Bending Thrills and Institutional Critique

The game is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

4.5

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Control
Photo: 505 Games

The Federal Bureau of Control is officially unofficial, the kind of place that’s sanctioned and funded yet kept top secret. It has the flags, portraits, and other mainstays of banal government office life spread beneath stark fluorescent lights, except the bureau is headquartered within the Oldest House, an interdimensional construct of shapeshifting brutalist architecture. Few outsiders visit the clandestine FBC, and it can’t rely on help from other organizations if, say, a malevolent force runs rampant by warping its layout, possessing its employees, and releasing all manner of threats previously penned within a metaphysical prison. Such is the state of affairs that confronts players in Remedy’s Control, a third-person shooter with one of the strangest, most fascinating settings in the history of the genre.

In FBC parlance, “paranatural” is when our typical perception of reality has been altered by some extradimensional entity or the collective human unconscious. The bureau’s agents are sent out by its scientists in order to contain such events and bring back evidence for further study. It’s an almost ludicrously broad umbrella able to encompass all manner of strange phenomena, and the developers at Remedy Entertainment use it to let their imaginations run truly wild within the FBC’s confines. There’s an anchor that ominously floats in a gray abyss, an imprisoned refrigerator that must be constantly observed to quell its anger, and the telekinetic arsenal of Jesse Faden (Courtney Hope), a newcomer to the bureau. She arrives on the scene only to find the place locked down and in the middle of an extradimensional invasion, overrun by a strange force in the air that she names after its telltale noise: the Hiss.

The former bureau director, Zachariah Trench (Max Payne’s James McCaffrey), is dead, and by claiming his shapeshifting paranatural service weapon, Jesse becomes the de facto head of the FBC, newly in charge of the survivors and the search for a solution to the calamity. The various portraits of Trench hanging on the wall immediately morph into ones of Jesse, and from there, the game mixes the rhythm of Remedy’s other shooters—where characters have both strange powers and a lot of guns—with Metroid-esque exploration elements. New abilities and new keycards let her travel deeper into the strangest corners of the bureau, all of which are infested by Hiss-possessed FBC agents or other rampaging paranatural phenomena, like a wayward flying television or multicolored mold that mutates anyone who ingests it.

The boundless imagination of the bureau’s design is perhaps Remedy’s crowning achievement to date. Each of the FBC’s backdrops feels purposeful, all of them labeled and strewn with accompanying materials and documents that make as much sense as an interdimensional government agency possibly could. Rather than a bunch of laboratories filled with random test tubes and such, you find the remains of specific paranatural experiments; the department experimenting with the concept of luck, for one, is littered with horseshoes and four-leaf clovers and Japanese beckoning cat figurines to test their effect on a roulette table that, upon an unlucky spin, keeps making the fire extinguishers explode. One office has been sealed off to contain an epidemic of multiplying sticky notes, and a mysterious janitor keeps sending you after a disgusting behemoth he calls the Clog; other areas require Jesse to pull a light cord three times for transport to a mysterious empty motel that connects certain Bureau corridors.

The whole place runs on decades-old technology, because anything that’s too new tends to break or even explode upon entering the Oldest House (one document that Jesse discovers theorizes that the accelerated pace of technology prevents newer materials from shoring up a spot in our collective memories). Videos are shown on old projectors, while conversations or recordings from a late-night radio show about the supernatural are heard from reel-to-reel players. The official documents that you find lying around—with some of their details, naturally, blacked out—are across-the-board captivating for the breadth of stories they tell, informing the history of different objects around the bureau as though you’re piecing together tangential story threads that took place long before Jesse’s arrival.

The sheer detail of the game’s setting provides a stunning backdrop for its frenzied battles, because rather than seem like specifically designed gunfight locales, you fight off the Hiss in rooms and labs and offices with discernable functions. And in the ensuing violence, those functions are totally upended, lost in the explosions and telekinetic chaos wrought by the bureau’s myopic need to probe the forces of the unknown. Throughout Control, papers and desks are sent flying as battles leave the unmistakable marks of your passage, the lucky golden fish used in a probability experiment now ammunition against a Hiss gunner. The game encourages you to be constantly on the move; staying in one place for too long allows the Hiss to focus their fire or blow up your cover, and health can only be recovered by running over to enemies for the blue droplets that fall out of them upon death.

These fights don’t always go smoothly, not least of which because the framerate on a base PS4 tends to sag under the weight of all the explosions and flying debris. The health system, particularly when combined with some questionable checkpoints and long load times, can grow exasperating as the game piles on more variables for you to pay attention to, from airborne foes to invisible ones to whatever attack might knock out most of your health bar. But between such bouts of frustration, the battles are a deeply satisfying struggle of strategy plucked from chaos, as when you grab hold of some flying debris, levitate to circumvent enemy cover, and then telekinetically launch it at a cluster of exploding Hiss mutants.

And though Jesse’s journey might seem like a rote Chosen One arc, the game complicates matters purely through context. With so much detail in its writing and environmental design, Control provides a palpable sense of history, a feeling that the FBC functioned long before Jesse and might just as easily continue to do so without her presence. Here, it legitimately feels like Jesse has arrived at a place in the midst of something far larger than her, rather than, as in most video games, a space specifically tailored to her, her abilities, and her antagonists. Together with a faint metatextual awareness of tackling a sort of Chosen One scenario, Control becomes an alternately absurd, frightening, and hilarious critique of power and hubris, aided by the hard-boiled, paranoid ramblings of former director Trench on a paranatural hotline phone and the amateurish video presentations of the excitable Dr. Casper Darling (Alan Wake’s Matthew Porretta, who’s filmed in live-action segments).

While the game is clearly enamored with the bizarre wonders scattered around the FBC, it questions the institutions’s attempts at control at every turn by leaning into government sterility. The whole place, especially when ravaged by so much death and destruction, is a ridiculous juxtaposition of bureaucratic banality and the seemingly unknowable; indeed, no one here seems to truly comprehend the paranatural phenomena, but they certainly understand that everybody ought to file things alphabetically and work in cubicles and hang a flag on the wall, even when their potential annihilation sits in a closet just a few rooms over. With its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink imagination, Control is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Remedy Entertainment Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 27, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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