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Review: One Piece: Pirate Warriors

The game is deeply unrewarding, with an unlockable series of side-character stories that registers as little more than fan service.

1.5

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One Piece: Pirate Warriors

Conceptually, reskinning a Dynasty Warriors game with the insanely popular One Piece franchise is absolutely ideal, with the heroic, super-powered Straw Hat pirates (word used extremely loosely) standing in for historical warriors, taking on legions of under-powered mooks, including other pirates and members of the villainous World Government. Powerful series antagonists serve as the boss characters, giving fans the chance to relive their favorite battles from across the series. While the level of presentation here is astounding, with Oda’s unique art coming to life in detailed cel-shaded 3D graphics and the original Japanese voice actors and music carrying over from the anime, the gameplay is sadly underdeveloped and rote, also plagued with technical issues.

The main campaign covers several of the major story arcs from the series, divided into individual episodes that each tote their own specific gameplay. At its core, the game is dominated by the same beat-’em-up action as the other entries in the Dynasty Warriors series, with a mix of combos and special moves trying to keep things interesting: Levels are divided up into general hack-and-slash areas, then conquest arenas, in which a number of enemies must be defeated to take over a territory, and finally boss battles. The problem is that these are extremely monotonous, driven by repeating the same actions ad nauseam, and attempts to subvert formula aren’t fun, such as a never-ending series of annoying quick-time events to navigate characters around oversized maps. Battles featuring one or more of the other Straw Hats fighting alongside the playable character are plagued by terrible, suicidal AI (both enemies and allies will rush to their demise, sometimes making levels impossible to complete) and a plummeting frame rate, just two of the many technical problems that should have been fixed before release.

Abridging One Piece’s scattered narrative does it no favors, with the series mythology buried under a mess of poorly handled animatics and a flimsy central storyline completely incoherent for newcomers. One could argue that One Piece: Pirate Warriors is primarily for fans, though there’s some appeal for everyone when the three-katana samurai (he holds one in his mouth) takes on a sword-fighting giraffe, or when an enormous inflatable fist punches a hitman leopard in formal wear through a castle. But Pirate Warriors sucks the fun out of any unintentional Schadenfreude by being so laborious and boring to play.

The game is deeply unrewarding, with an unlockable series of side-character stories that registers as little more than fan service, and a multiplayer that offers more of the same without improvement. (Best not to dwell on the uselessness of the appallingly rendered female characters, one of whom is gifted with the bizarre ability to grow arms out of anything—arms that could surely rip apart and annihilate foes, but instead do basically nothing.) Zoro gets lost in the middle of battle, you can dispatch a hundred enemies at once with a well-timed special attack, and the original Japanese audio has been left mercifully intact, but those minor pleasures are ruined by bland repetition and technical hitches.


1.

Developer: Tecmo Koei Games Publisher: Namco Bandai Games Platform: PlayStation Network Release Date: September 25, 2012 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Suggestive Themes, Mild Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost Recon Breakpoint Abounds in Mindless Fetch Quests and Dull Action

There are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, but none of them are particularly engaging.

1.5

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Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Photo: Ubisoft

The last line spoken in Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s main campaign is meant to be a serious question: As your character, codenamed Nomad, looks out over the semi-liberated archipelago of Auroa, he or she asks, “All right, what’s next?” But, in reality, the question exposes how little there actually ever was to look forward to in Breakpoint. Players are as free to continue exploring Auroa as they’ve been from the beginning, so what’s next is the same as what’s been next for the previous 30 hours: more shooting and looting.

Despite the diversity of the 21 districts on Auroa and the various biomes you’ll encounter as you travel from flat swamplands to snowy mountains and deep jungles, Breakpoint adheres to a sadly repetitive structure. A target will be identified, you’ll locate said target, and then you’ll kill anyone who gets in your way. For a bit of variety, you can swap between classes, playing as a long-range Sharpshooter, stealth expert Panther, head-on Assault, or group-healing Medic, but because every mission can be completed the same way, it rarely makes a difference.

Even recon, which should be the bread-and-butter of this franchise, is taken scarcely more seriously than in 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands; the optional Exploration mode forces players to manually find each mission by following geographic descriptions. But once you’ve reached them, yellow dots pop up to show you exactly what you need to do, obviating the need for all that photographic intel you collect. Occasionally, you may have to leave one enemy alive as you infiltrate the area they’re stationed in, so that you can interrogate them for more information, but, in essence, the game’s core loop comes down to scouting, shooting, and salvaging. It’s a series of mindless fetch quests, punctuated by dull combat.

Where other open-world games deliver on the fantasy and immediacy of amusement-park rides, Breakpoint establishes the crippling logistics of visiting the theme park itself. In Just Cause 4, you get a physics-defying grappling hook and perform roller-coaster-like stunts; in Breakpoint, you send up your reconnaissance drone to mark all of the targets in an area and, only after planning everything, can you start the “fun” of killing them. In Far Cry New Dawn, you solve environmental puzzles and sometimes face the sort of disorienting designs you’d find in a funhouse; in Breakpoint, you emulate patiently waiting in line as you queue up the fast-travel menu to the nearest bivouac, set up a campsite, change your loadout, call in a vehicle, and drive to your next sortie. Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with divertissements like hunting and gambling; Breakpoint, at best, emulates an arcade’s shooting gallery.

The first few hours of Breakpoint are its boldest, as your underpowered and outgunned character’s chopper is shot down over the archipelago of Auroa. There are immediate personal stakes, given that the mission appears to have been betrayed by a former ally, Lt. Col. Cole D. Walker (Jon Bernthal). There’s also a real element of danger in the arrival of Walker’s elite Wolves, whose high gear levels make this one of the rare times in the game which a stealthy retreat is recommended, and where you’ll want to drop to the ground and use stealth camo to hide from the tracking Azrael drones that occasionally fly overhead. After appropriating a vehicle, Nomad can use visual clues to reach the friendly base of Erewhon, where many of the locals hid following the private military coup that led to the techtopia of Auroa being cut off from the outside world (and your team being sent in to investigate).

But the nonlinear structure that follows from this point ensures that nothing is able to change from that point, either in story or core gameplay. The only character with a lick of development is Walker, who gets scene-chewing flashbacks meant to justify his hatred for a corruptible U.S. military. Defensive Mads Shulz and terrorist Haruhi Ito, the respective leaders of the island’s two resistance factions, exist almost entirely to dispense daily missions. And while one mission might take place in a coastal villa designed to attract elite investors while another might be set in an underground Cold War bunker retrofitted as a data-processing center, you’ll use the same tools to clear them. Progression can be oddly wonky as well. For one, you might find yourself being asked to return a citizen from an overrun camp, even if you just cleared it out minutes ago. And if you die, there’s no telling where you’ll reload, as it could be hundreds of meters away, or directly in a guard’s sights.

Breakpoint’s fixed nature is at direct odds with its open-world design, and ultimately results in a game that less about realism than it is about imposing limits. Only certain guards can call for reinforcements, and enemies that are “on alert” will continue to march directly toward the sound of gunfire, even if that means thoughtlessly climbing over the corpses of their predecessors, directly into a kill corridor. Worse, the game expects players to act as inorganically as the AI. The only way past a chainlink fence is with a craftable laser cutter, the final battle must be fought at close range, and should you dare to kill the sniper Rosebud from a distance, you’ll inexplicably fail on account of being too far from your objective. There’s no emergent gameplay here, there’s just a rigid set of often unseen rules, and while there are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, none of them are particularly engaging.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Mild Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Is One Giant Leap for the Bungie Series

This expansion marks a sea change for the series, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast.

4

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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Photo: Bungie

With Bungie consciously uncoupled from Activision, and, reportedly, with no small amount of cheers and champagne from the developers, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is in the unenviable position of having to assert a somehow “truer,” better vision of Destiny by taking full advantage of Bungie’s master-less status. That’s not necessarily fair to this expansion, which is, at the moment, content to represent just one more small step for Destiny as an ongoing narrative. The haphazard and daring house that is Destiny remains exactly that, but Shadowkeep has done some major and vital repairs to the foundation. Against all modern logic for this kind of game, and the last two years of Destiny 2, it seems as if Bungie actually intends for its players to—brace yourself—enjoy playing it.

Shadowkeep reflects a fascinating hyper-focus on the mistakes of the past, both on the part the game’s characters and Bungie itself. On the narrative side, the story has the Tower’s broody mystic, Eris Morn, sending up a distress call on the Moon, after stumbling across a pyramid buried beneath the surface. Once activated, the pyramid starts raising apparitions of long-dead friends and enemies across the solar system. Eris herself is haunted by the Fireteam that failed to save her before she was tortured and mutilated. You, on the other hand, are besieged by the ghosts of Destiny expansions past: Crota, Omnigul, the Fanatic, and more. All the while, the ghosts of dead Guardians float limply in the atmosphere all around the Moon, lamenting their fate, screaming for help, and calling for backup that won’t come.

That Bungie managed to make a haunted moon so incredibly unsettling, and in a world where “Moon’s Haunted” is a still popular meme, is impressive in and of itself. And that helps, given that it’s the framework holding together what’s essentially still the old Destiny song and dance of an NPC needing special artifacts from a deep, dark, and dangerously infested place, in exchange for, hopefully, better guns and armor. Bungie has always been good at that part—the very craft of putting us in daunting situations that feel exhilarating to fight our way out of using the fatal flash and flair at our disposal. Aside from some smarter enemy placement and a new finishing move system that’s mechanically reminiscent of 2016’s Doom in the best possible way, that’s the part where Destiny simply stays the course. It’s in being prepared to fight these fights and keeping them interesting hour after hour, day after day, week after week that Bungie has struggled. And it’s here that Bungie has done the most work on itself.

Shadowkeep completely overhauls and streamlines Destiny 2’s loot system, while breaking up the benefits provided by each piece of gear into easy-to-parse RPG stats, governing each aspect of your Guardian in combat. So much more of the power to build a character is now in the player’s hands as opposed to being enslaved to the lucky drop, which has been the bane of the Destiny franchise since day one. Now, enhancing gear is a matter of owning the modification you want, and having the pittance of Glimmer—Destiny’s simplest and long-neglected currency—required to apply it. Infusing is a bit more of an involved process, but now it’s centered around two easy-to-obtain ingredients instead of five annoying ones. Shadowkeep’s intent truly shows itself as you come up against the game’s current soft level cap of 900, which is typically the point where Destiny settles into an interminable grind until new content finally releases. In this case, however, this is the point where the game blossoms.

It needs to, in fairness, as Shadowkeep’s cinematic story content ends somewhat abruptly, albeit on a foreboding note. It feels like what Bungie was going for with the first game’s climax-but-not-really. After Shadowkeep’s ending, dedicated strikes against the undead bosses of old are unlocked. You obtain new challenges for exotic weapons that actually tell full-fledged stories about their curation or creation. A new public activity becomes available—complete with a beautifully terrifying cinematic that plays the next time you start the game—that has you fending off a Vex invasion, though unlocking that activity is the worst-explained part of the expansion. All of it is in favor of preparing you to face whatever may wind up emerging from that pyramid sooner than later, and the game does a grand job of not just showing you how to prepare but giving you good motivating reasons to do so.

The guiding principles behind every decision made in Shadowkeep keep players engaged not through monotony, but through legitimate engagement with a ridiculous bounty of options. One should hesitate to place the entirety of Destiny’s flaws on Activision, but without a doubt, this expansion marks a sea change for the franchise, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast. Shadowkeep doesn’t have a true ending, but it’s damn gratifying to know that, this time, it’s because the best might be yet to come.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by the Amplifier Group.

Developer: Bungie Publisher: Bungie Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 2, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Indivisible Conjures Up Nostalgia Without Being Derivative

Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

3.5

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Indivisible
Photo: 505 Games

Ajna, the impetuous 16-year-old martial artist at the center of Indivisible, has an odd mystic power: She can absorb her allies and carry them around with her in her Inner Realm, so as to call upon them when needed for advice or aid in battle. The game itself operates by a similar modus operandi, in that it’s absorbed a variety of disparate elements, all of which the developers at Lab Zero Games have mashed together in an attempt to create something entirely new and somehow more than the sum of its parts. While Indivisible doesn’t always succeed at combining its RPG and Metroidvania elements, the developer’s attention to small details ensures that these pieces are always at least separately entertaining.

The many ways in which Indivisible builds upon the elements it borrows from helps it to conjure up nostalgia without being derivative. The combat, which assigns each of your party members to one of your controller’s four face buttons, stems from Valkyrie Profile but is more varied here due to the mechanically unique heroes—everything from a revolver-wielding marksman to a trap-setting ninja. Elsewhere, the game’s combo-heavy platforming calls to mind challenges from Guacamelee, only with an even wider variety of tools, like body-swapping arrows. And as for Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack, it evokes the calming rhythms of his classic Secret of Mana score but frequently moves in surprising ways. All of these things thematically link to Ajna’s own journey, in which she eventually learns to work with and grow from her friends, as opposed to always just brute-force attacking everything.

The world of Loka, like Indivisible, has a little bit of everything. For one, a Buddhist temple sits adjacent to an Aztec ruin, an Arabian oasis, and a contemporary red-light district awash in neon signage and drugs. Throughout, you’ll have to do a good deal of backtracking between these locations, as the platforming abilities required to complete one region are generally learned by progressing through another one. But the sense of repetition never really sets in due to the combat and level designs pulsing with so much personality and charm. That’s evident in the novel battle mechanics, like those of one character who rides a dive-bombing bird, as well as in the game’s visual flair, like a piece of fan art hidden in a nightclub owner’s office, and the comedic one-liners, like a milk-divining prophet’s insults.

But in trying to avoid repetition, especially with its large cast of playable characters, Indivisible sometimes gets needlessly gimmicky. For instance, if you put Lanshi in your party, you can pet him during combat to generate energy for the team. But while this works as an obvious nod to the popular Twitter account @CanYouPetTheDog, it’s not a particularly useful skill in combat, which largely revolves around chaining together direct attacks as opposed to idly generating buffs. By contrast, given that you’re simultaneously controlling four characters, the sporty Hunoch and his undead twin, Xiboch, require too much active attention, since they fight by rebounding a disc off of foes, Pong-style. Then again, with 20 characters to choose from, you’re never stuck with an uncomfortable playstyle, and one player’s gimmick might be another’s secret weapon. Tactical players may be drawn to Nuna for her botanical landmines, which sprout up to entangle enemies that step on them, while bruisers may stick with Shieldmaiden Qadira, whose bonus attacks allow her to single-handedly combo enemies.

Indivisible’s combat, story, and exploration are independently enjoyable, but they rarely feel like parts of the same game. Outside of a few boss fights that task players with dodging attacks in a platforming section before clashing in the turn-based combat, these two elements are largely disconnected, to the extent that there’s an entire dungeon consisting only of acrobatic leaps without so much as a single enemy encounter. And while it’s always fun to try out new characters, the game’s second half is so unbalanced and easy that there’s little reason to master their various moves when mindless button mashing works just as well.

This lack of cohesion, though, is disappointing only in regard to how it tears at the game’s larger thematic fabric. Ajna’s growth, after all, is all about accepting and incorporating all of the elements she’s absorbed, and Indivisible never really requires players to do the same. That’s because it leaps between great ideas, such that what starts out as an RPG with platforming elements later becomes a Metroidvania with turn-based battles. Thankfully, this shift in focus in no way diminishes either component. Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Wonacott Communications.

Developer: Lab Zero Games Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: The Surge 2 Is a Blast to Play, Though It’s Prone to Hand-Holding

For all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues.

3.5

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The Surge 2
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Players begin The Surge 2 in a deliberately disorienting fashion. Your character, a plane crash survivor, has just awaken from a two-month-long coma. A voice in your head warns that “they’re” coming to kill you, and with the use of two nearby defibrillator paddles as a makeshift weapon, you must immediately fend off sentry drones. But for both better and worse, the mystery behind your circumstances is quickly revealed, as the game uses friendly civilians to explain that you’re in the dystopian mega-city of Jericho City and that a nanotech plague has led to a quarantine. You always know exactly where you’re supposed to go, and why, and though the city is somewhat open for exploration, high-level enemies and pathways that require specialized equipment serve to funnel you through each area.

Although its precisely timed counter-heavy combat and interconnected, shortcut-filled exploration borrow heavily from the Dark Souls playbook, The Surge 2 is otherwise a significantly more straightforward game. In addition to your objectives being clearly recorded in your logbook, your character can equip a wide variety of cybernetic implants that make combat easier. If you’re having trouble reading your opponents’ physical cues, you can utilize an augment that adds a directional arrow to your screen to show you exactly where attacks are coming from. And if you keep hitting the wrong limb on an enemy, severing its chest when you’re trying to salvage an arm, you can also install a chip for that.

Even the game’s loading screen is profoundly helpful, as it displays a tourist’s map to the various districts of Jericho City. Since this is the image that you’ll be staring at each time your character falls in battle, death essentially helps to reorient the player. You can absolutely still get lost in the game’s tense, rhythmic battles or Jericho City’s labyrinthine alleyways and ruinous buildings, but for the most part, The Surge 2 provides clear, meaningful goals and a series of constant, albeit small, achievements that help to alleviate the punishing difficulty.

It’s this sense of making incremental gains that makes The Surge 2 such a blast to play. As is standard for hardcore Dark Souls-like games, when you die you drop all of your currency—here called scrap—and have one chance to make it back from your respawn point to your death location to recollect it. But The Surge 2 goes even further than its predecessor in adding quality-of-life improvements that help mitigate the risks you take: You can bank unspent currency at any MedBay, safely storing it for later; you can unlock an abundance of shortcuts, which helps to cut down on unwanted backtracking; and, most importantly, you can always use the game’s gory, slow-motion limb-severing mechanic to harvest new tools from your enemies, which ensures that you’re always getting something from even old foes. Dying is less of a failure if it nets you a new weapon, or allows you to gather schematics and raw parts. If your current equipment isn’t doing the trick, it won’t take long for you to mix, match, and upgrade to a new set of helmets, chests, arms, and legs that better serve your playstyle.

The Surge 2 also has a lot more environmental variety than the original game. Jericho City is filled with encampments of human survivors, each of which reflects a very different sort of response to the nanotech disaster. For instance, entrepreneurs eke out a living in what remains of the Seaside Court mall, doctors attempt to feed and clothe children in the tented evacuation site that rests atop an abandoned highway, and a bunch of rich, well-connected socialites host a decadent End of the World party in the swanky bar of a high-rise hotel. In addition to the checkpointed city streets, which are occupied by overzealous, trigger-happy soldiers, the waterlogged district of Port Nixon has been overrun by a religious, machine-worshipping cult, and the nature preserve at Gideon’s Rock is filled with opportunistic stealth-suit-wearing mercenaries looking to score a quick bounty or two.

That said, for all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues. The game’s a graphical mess, with textures failing to load, and a general fuzziness to everything when in the lower-resolution Performance Mode. (Even the upgraded PlayStation 4 Pro has trouble smoothly handling the better visuals of Quality Mode.) Certain environments, like the neon-irradiated gloom of a power plant that’s been transformed into a church, have an ambient glare that makes it hard to clearly make out one’s character in combat. Others, like the nanite-infested sewer tunnels, are too dark, even with your exosuit’s lights on. Worst of all is the game’s errant collision detection; occasionally, your character will get stuck against a wall and instantly die.

The further into The Surge 2 players make it, the more abilities they gain for navigating the city: an EMP blast opens electronic locks and restarts magnetic lifts, a grappling hook allows glorified zip-lines to be rappelled up and down, and fast travel is enabled between the non-combat regions. Inversely, the easier it becomes to get around, the less the game asks you to do so. Dedicated players can wander off the blinkered path, but the sidequests are neither compelling nor rewarding enough to encourage this. The last act of the game is literally a molten path of destruction painted across the city that strongly urges players to proceed directly to their final destination. The Surge 2 offers a temporary jolt of entertainment, but after a dozen hours, it’s a desperate sprint to the end before it runs out of juice entirely.

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

Developer: Deck 13 Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 24, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Is an Enchanting Remake

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour.

4

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The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Photo: Nintendo

The story of Nintendo, as a publisher and a developer, can be told solely by the Zelda titles released during each generation of console. With that in mind, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is telling a much different story about the Switch than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but probably a more accurate one. So much of the Switch’s library is about bringing the neglected past—be it design ideas, genres, or just the more simplistic mechanical joys of the old days of gaming—into the present, all dressed up, and ready to go anywhere players want. The lovely, quirky little delicacy that is Link’s Awakening makes much more sense as the second Zelda title on the platform in that context.

First released on the good old brick-sized Game Boy with the spinach-green screen, Link’s Awakening is something of a conceptual bridge between the original game’s quaint screen-by-screen exploration and the ambitious scope of its bigger brother, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, on the SNES. Here, Link is stranded on a deserted island and forced to gather a bunch of magical instruments loud enough to awaken the spirit of an entity called the Wind Fish, which lays dormant in an egg on top of the highest mountain of the island. There’s a couple of last-minute twists, but it’s probably one of the easiest Zelda titles to lose the plot of.

Still, it’s a testament to just how immaculate the original top-down formula for Zelda is that Link’s Awakening has been ported to the Switch with absolutely no changes to its level design, enemy placement, or mechanics and the game still feels just as appealing and vital as it did 26 years prior. What little has aged for Link’s Awakening as a game—some obtuse puzzles, and the occasional poorly explained breadcrumb leading players to their next objective—still feeds into the game’s most addictive hook: the simple joy of sending young Link adventuring into new places and having him find new friends, enemies, or hilarious weirdoes hiding around every corner of the map, and in the process bringing him closer to his ultimate goal.

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour, from the adorable way that Link swipes his sword to the Flintstone-y patter of his feet when he gets a running start. The addition of side-scrolling 2D passages inside dungeons has more in common with Mario games than the black-sheep experiment that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and while a full game consisting of these areas might be stilted and awkward, these quick passages never outstay their welcome. On the Switch, the game is an endless cavalcade of enchantment, and Nintendo, wisely, hasn’t tried to fix what isn’t broken, only present it to a new generation of kids and kids-at-heart.

The only major change to Link’s Awakening with this Switch port is the look of it all: the swapping out of the primitive pixels of the Gameboy version for an utterly magical stop-motion aesthetic that suggests a Rankin/Bass Zelda Christmas special, which makes the game’s gentle charms all the more effective. Other than that, the game has mostly gotten quality-of-life improvements. The Switch not being limited to only two buttons on its controller means that many of the logistic problems of the Game Boy version—like having to manually equip one item at a time to perform simple tasks of traversal—are nonexistent here. People who’ve put years of play into the original game will be able to waltz through Link’s Awakening on the Switch in mere hours, with none of the logistical hassles tripping them up.

Ironically, it’s the elements tacked onto the game that wind up sticking out like a sore thumb. A color-themed dungeon from the DX re-release of the game is possibly too cute and gimmicky for its own good, and a new side quest involving building a new dungeon is half-baked and monotonous, when it should have been the Zelda equivalent of Mario Maker. Both are optional distractions from a game that, by design, has no choice than to keep players on task, looking to use newly discovered abilities to move forward. Comparing Link’s Awakening to Breath of the Wild, the latter showed there’s still so much more this series—Nintendo, even—is capable of. The former is proving just how much they can do with so little.

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

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 20, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence 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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