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Review: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

Defense isn’t nearly as important as a strong and constant offense, through which you can accumulate the AP necessary to trigger those killing moves.




PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

PaRappa the Rapper and a Big Daddy walk into a fighting game. It sounds like a bad (or extremely bloody) joke, but the literal punchline is that they’re pretty evenly matched. If you even remember him, Ape Attack’s Spike holds up fairly well against DMC’s Dante, and the projectile-reflecting Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet can manage long-range warriors like Killzone’s Mael Radec and Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. Unlike any of the other combatants, Sly Cooper relies on his stealth to avoid being hit, whereas in a call-out to his series’s roots, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s hero, Raiden, has a special move that traps his rivals in cardboard boxes. None of this should work, especially in comparison to Nintendo’s equally cartoonish and scattershot brawler series, Super Smash Bros., and yet if these comic combinations of heroes don’t get to you, perhaps the solidly designed albeit ridiculous and occasionally unbalanced mechanics of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale will.

For the most part, each character plays as you imagine they would: Both Ratchet (of Ratchet & Clank) and Jak (of Jak and Daxter) alternate between melee attacks and a various arsenal of gimmick guns, whereas MediEvil’s Sir Daniel Fortesque slowly swings his gigantic sword and charges into his foes. Heihachi Mishima, from Tekken, smoothly brings his stance-shifting and combo-juggling moves with him and both versions of InFamous’s Cole Macgrath (good and evil) have means of quickly thrusting through the air. Only God of War’s Kratos seems inappropriately broken, with his regular attacks every bit as strong and long-range as his special moves, especially in comparison to the odder characters: Sony’s mascot (at least in Japan), Toro Inoue, who mocks characters (like Akuma) by donning their costumes, and Twisted Metal’s Sweet Tooth, who feels like a sluggish distillation of several other characters—ones who aren’t normally found in cars. Still, the design is clever and often surprising, as when Fat Princess gets one up on Heavenly Sword’s Nariko, and it reminds us that the Sony library, which includes third-party exclusives, is rather robust for DLC: Bring on Maximo, Crash Bandicoot, or, say, Sephiroth.

Strong as the all-star lineup is for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the battles don’t always have that regal poise and can quickly devolve into hectic button-mashing. Characters don’t have health meters, and can be knocked out only through the use of special moves; therefore, defense isn’t nearly as important as a strong and constant offense, through which you can accumulate the AP necessary to trigger those killing moves. This isn’t to say the game is without strategy: Do you execute a short-range Level 1 attack or attempt to save up for an arena-killing Level 3? Do you save your Level 2 in an attempt to counter an opponent’s Level 2? Nor is it all mashing buttons: The better your combo, the higher your AP generation, and certain items, throws, and level hazards will even allow you to drain the AP of your opponents. For the most part, though, especially in online tournament play, which limits matches to a “most kills in 3:00” affair, combat is hectic and, when multiple characters pick the same character, confusing to keep track of. Variety may be the spice of life, but only when it’s tautly balanced, as in Persona 4: Arena.

Additionally, cleverness isn’t a solid foundation for a fighting game, at least not in the long run. Some of the animations that accompany Level 3 supers go on for too long, especially those that disable one’s ability to defend or even run away. The mash-ups and creativity in level design are outstanding: a battle that begins atop two of Killzone’s besieged landing drones ends up in a two-tiered bunker; LittleBigPlanet’s course is slowly dropped in by an unseen level editor (and then co-opted by the MC from the quiz game Buzz!); and Ratchet & Clank’s hapless Qwark gets devoured by God of War’s Hydra. But it all grows repetitive and sometimes overshadows the combat itself. The effort to have animated backgrounds and varied hazards also leads some levels to fall flat: The Dojo from PaRappa the Rapper has only one straightforward floor, even after being blown up by Resistance’s alien invasion, and the first half of Uncharted’s level is stuck in the claustrophobic cargo hold of a plane. Some characters can salvage and even exploit this hilarious yet unbalanced hodgepodge of ideas, but equal footing—the cornerstone of a skill-based brawler—is sometimes lacking.

Whether it began as a joke or not and just spiraled out of control, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is largely what you make of it. Serious combatants will find a robust practice mode and the now industry-standard array of combat trials, while those who just want to kick back for a few hours can enjoy the story mode, which comes up with bizarrely entertaining reasons for these characters to be facing off. (Kratos should never have smashed Sweet Tooth’s ice-cream cone. Evil Cole should know better than to stand between Fat Princess and her cake. And nobody, especially an animated cat, should ever call Heihachi an old man.) Co-op is alive and well in the 2v2 modes, and those with a masochistic streak can challenge their friends (or enemies) to 1v3 battles in the Versus mode. Moreover, every action you take with a character helps to build up their Battle Points, which in turn unlock new costumes, taunts, and player icons. Given the depth of the lineup, there’s something here for every Sony fan, but even trolling Nintendo fanboys may have to admit that this is an equally deep fighting game…even if that fact sometimes gets lost amid all the colorful pastels, cel-shading, and machine-gun pixels that make up this weird and wonderful patchwork universe.

Developer: SuperBot Entertainment Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: November 20, 2012 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Rädical Rabbit Stew Is a Comic Medley of Things That Work

Metaphorically speaking, the developers at Pugstorm have left more than half the carrot buried in the soil.




Rädical Rabbit Stew
Photo: Sold Out

Swedish-based developer Pugstorm’s Rädical Rabbit Stew doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but that doesn’t prevent this madcap arcade puzzler from being entertaining. Its nonsensical plot, involving a hungry and jealous Rabbit Queen abducting a bunch of intergalactic space rabbit chefs, frees up the gameplay to be equally ridiculous. And considering that the game already begins with the volume of its antics turned up to a 10, with your cleaning-boy protagonist figuring out the right angles at which to whack ravenous rabbits into cookpots, it’s impressive how much louder things get. Throughout, you’ll encounter bomb-filled pirate ships, slippery ice arenas, a dark cemetery haunted by ghostly bunnies, and a variety of tricked-out, gameplay-altering spoons for your hero to wield.

Rädical Rabbit Stew takes a lot of cues from games like Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle and Goof Troop, whose devious puzzles are covered by a veneer of comedy. The foundational gameplay is solid, with much weight placed on the jokes found across 60-plus levels—and they largely hold up. The first boss fight, for instance, is against a giant dog wearing an ill-fitting bunny costume. His name is Pugs Bunny, and you must defeat him by knocking his vegetable-laden model trains at him as they steam past. Familiar elements like pressure plates, moveable blocks, and slippery ice are all executed well, and the spoon-slapping mechanics occasionally offer novel ways to interact with such mainstays of puzzle games, but if wanton punnery isn’t your thing (Planky McBoatface, Lava Bunthedral, and Bunningham Castle are some of the level names), the game is bound to wear a bit thin. The general lack of difficulty might be a factor in that: While there are 69 (groan) optional medals, collecting them usually just requires that you notice a path hidden just out of camera range, not in solving any more challenging puzzles.

It’s a little disappointing, then, that the developers at Pugstorm didn’t dig a little deeper; metaphorically speaking, they’ve left more than half the carrot buried in the soil. One level introduces a super carrot that, when knocked into the same row or column as a bunny, causes enemies to crazily charge directly toward it, smashing through any obstacles in its path. This mechanic is never encountered again, not even in Rädical Rabbit Stew’s modest level editor. It’s sad enough that the cannon-like cauldrons that shoot you across gaps and the armored, knife-wielding bunny knights that pursue you are underutilized in the campaign, but it’s downright frustrating that you can’t use them in the level editor. The game’s local multiplayer is also similarly underwhelming, as there are only four timed stages, each of which revolves around vying with up to three friends to pot the most bunnies.

Considering that Rädical Rabbit Stew can be beaten in under an hour (though a first run will take at least three), it speaks to the quality of the level design that the gameplay doesn’t feel rushed. If anything, it’s stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients. A lot of care has gone into distinguishing enemy classes, like the unstoppable bombardier bunnies clad in aviation caps and goggles or bat-like bunnies that swoop toward you, as well as arming you with unique weaponry, which includes a grappling-hook spoon called the Helping Hand and an explosives-making one known as the Bomb Scoop. These creations are each well-defined and enjoyable, which makes it all the more frustrating that you aren’t given more time to play with them. As a result, Rädical Rabbit Stew sometimes feels like more of an appetizer than a main course.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Wonacott Communications, LLC.

Developer: Pugstorm Publisher: Sold Out Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Amanita’s Creaks Dazzles by Foregrounding Its Seussian Spirit

The game is primarily a vehicle for Amanita Design’s brand of typically immaculate artistry.




Photo: Amanita Design

In Amanita Design’s Creaks, players will find a mansion situated somewhere inside the walls of a nameless young man’s house. Abiding by an almost Seussian logic, it’s alien and angular, its gargantuan rooms piled on top of one another. Amid all the levers and ladders that complicate your journey to the bottom are the creatures of the game’s namesake, who look like flying jellyfish and goats and dogs but, beneath the beam of a lightbulb, transform into furniture. A dog’s single eye will morph into a handle, its open jaw melting into an ordinary chest of drawers, never to move again until the light flips back off.

Rendered in a beautiful, spindly style by the developers at Amanita, the expressive characters move in skitters and shuffles. The hand-drawn art and its consciously restrained color palette evoke a children’s book, albeit one with detailed concentrations of lines that lend the game a faintly sinister, foreboding air. Silhouetted cutaway scenes even depict the protagonist’s various deaths at the hands of the creaks, who are hostile to varying degrees: The dogs give chase if you get too close, but the jellyfish only attack if you’re in the path of their floating patrol and the goats run away until you’ve cornered them.

Much of the game involves maneuvering through the mansion’s interconnected puzzle rooms by manipulating the creaks’ behavior, often by getting them to stand on switches or get out of the way long enough for you to, say, pull a lever that moves a bookcase or bridge blocking an exit. When the dogs chase you, for example, they will stop at the base of a ladder you’ve climbed for a short while, out of the way long enough for you to perhaps double back over the territory they guarded. They will return to their beds on little mats, but they know better than to cross any beams of light. That is, you must expose them by surprise, by flipping on a switch or moving obstacles that momentarily obstruct the beam. Though you sometimes progress by simply transforming creaks into static furniture to hold down switches, at other times you must take their full range of behaviors into account, when they’re free to roam around.

Across approximately five hours, the mechanics trickle forth gradually. Throughout, new ideas mingle with the old, as you’re introduced to the dogs, then the jellyfish, and then later a scene with both creatures that reveals the dogs to cower in fear of the jellyfish, clearing a path for you to slip by. Finding the puzzle solutions at all is generally the goal here, rather than performing precise actions; you’re given a generous amount of time to flip the proper switches and get into the right positions once you’ve figured out how to progress. And if you’re stumped, a few moments of experimentation with the levers and such tends to reveal the answer, and there are few instances where you can become stuck and need to restart a room.

As a result, the game does lack some of the sense of accomplishment and “ah-ha” moments of the best puzzle games. Reasonably clever though Creaks may be, it’s primarily a vehicle for Amanita’s brand of typically immaculate artistry, augmented here by the way the jangly music from composer Hidden Orchestra changes as the puzzle pieces fall into place. Though you encounter familiar configurations of levers and passageways and other obstacles, the mansion’s rooms all feel distinct, subtly interconnected in a way you likely won’t even notice unless you hit the load screen and see that every puzzle is coherently plotted on a zoomed-out side view of the mysterious mansion. Creaks hums along smoothly and pleasantly without calling attention to itself, to its sporadic detriment but mainly to its strength.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Amanita Design.

Developer: Amanita Design Publisher: Amanita Design Platform: PC Release Date: July 22, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Superhot: Mind Control Delete Takes Killer Aim at Gamer Expectations

The game feels like the brainchild of students who were into debate club as much as programming.




Superhot: Mind Control Delete
Photo: SUPERHOT Team

When Superhot was released in 2016, much praise was heaped on its novel “time moves when you move” gimmick, though some criticized the game for its brevity. Superhot: Mind Control Delete, initially planned as DLC but now releasing as a standalone game that’s bigger than the original, is a brilliant rebuttal to that criticism. Whereas Superhot subversively riffed on the tenebrous nature of control, Mind Control Delete slyly questions the purpose of extra content and how long a game should or shouldn’t be.

Mind Control Delete at first appears to exist for one reason: to deliver more Superhot. The blinking red box that greets you each time you boot up the game promises as much. “MORE,” it reads, and that’s what the game delivers. And not just more of those first-person fights where you step between slow-motion bullets to punch a shooter, grab his weapon and use it to pick off a sniper, hurl it at another foe, and then jump-punch your way to another enemy.

To this already volatile mix, there are now more levels, more abilities, more enemy types, more story. In-game, “MORE” is repeated as much as “SUPER HOT,” and so much so that the word practically loses all meaning, which is when you begin to see the way the game serves as a critique of itself. “There won’t be any closure,” we’re warned, “just more senseless killing.” There’s a fine line here between entertainment and annoyance, and the developers at SUPERHOT Team ride it like they’re playing the nerviest game of chicken, pushing players to the point at which the joy of pulling off that perfect sequence perhaps begins to sour.

Though Mind Control Delete has clear intentions, it never resorts to cheap tricks to make players step back and realize that sometimes less is more. There are two new and improved endless modes, each of which can be tackled with a variety of superpowers and “hacks.” These abilities shake up the basic concept of Superhot, so while you’re still throwing objects or shooting guns at bright red enemies, carefully clearing a room of its foes, your options for doing so are broader. With the grenade.hack enabled, every once-innocuous item—be it a stapler or a billiard ball—now detonates when thrown. And if you utilize the recall.core, you can summon a thrown katana back into your hand, just like a Jedi.

Elsewhere, you’ll have to make use of new skills like ricocheting bullets and close-range invulnerability, because levels may now include explosive mines and spiky enemies that release shrapnel when hit. You’ll also sometimes be faced with unkillable enemy archetypes like the charging Dog, katana-master Nindza, and position-swapping Addict, each one reflecting a toxic aspect of the gaming community such as avarice, addiction, or anger.

Though it’s an intentional choice, players may find themselves missing the deliberate encounters of the original Superhot, which featured pre-set scenarios to fight your way out of. Mind Control Delete instead randomly generates most of its challenges. Players wander through an ASCII map of interconnected nodes, each one containing somewhere from five to 10 levels, all of which must be completed within a set number of lives in order to progress. Fail a node, and your next run may pull an entirely different lineup out of its pool of over 30 maps, some of which are noticeably easier than others. The Kitchen’s meat locker and the Prison’s guard station are easy to camp in, whereas the Disco and Dojo have dangerous wide-open spaces. Levels like the Yakuza hangout are filled with useful weapons, whereas the Library and Studio leave you with non-lethal books and paintbrushes.

It’s not uncommon to have a run cut short because of bad luck with the hacks you get, your starting locations, or even the spawn patterns of enemies within each level—and this can quickly get frustrating as players go longer and longer without the respite of a checkpoint. Still, this randomness does a fine job of amplifying Mind Control Delete’s message about meaningless violence, and if it’s a bit too pointed, perhaps that, too, is the point.

Mind Control Delete feels like the brainchild of students who were into debate club as much as programming. Each new layer of gameplay exists to both argue for and against its inclusion, right up until the final twist, which allows players to progress only by their being willing to give up some of their hard-won new abilities. Until this point, players have been free to do as they like, experimenting with all the different combinations of power-ups in challenge nodes that send infinite waves of foes at players. But to keep that freedom, and to not have to give anything up, players must stop progressing through the campaign. And it’s at that point that you must determine what you value more: the ability to play a game ad infinitum or the opportunity to reach the ending, even if that comes at the cost of your enjoyment.

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

Developer: SUPERHOT Team Publisher: SUPERHOT Team Platform: PC Release Date: July 16, 2020 ESRB: M Buy: Game

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Review: Iron Man VR Handles Great and Digs Deep into a Hero’s Roots

A successful tech demo that allows one to truly feel like Iron Man, the game is also a strong superhero narrative in its own right.




Iron Man VR
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

A successful technical demonstration that allows players to truly feel like the titular character, Iron Man VR is also a strong superhero narrative in its own right. Opening with a tutorial that creatively introduces the player to its various mechanics, the game offers a playground with which to become accustomed to Iron Man’s abilities. And once you’ve left the confines of Tony Stark’s luxurious Malibu mansion by the bay, you’re placed in a plane that’s being shot out of the sky by an antagonist who’s using Stark’s own weapons of war against him. But Iron Man VR isn’t solely content with simulating the experience of being an iconic superhero. Rather, this is a game that puts the player in Stark’s shoes in all facets of his life, across a narrative that challenges the problematic morality of the character.

The game’s virtual-reality experience is nothing short of phenomenal: From either seated or standing position, the player uses the PlayStation Move motion controllers as Iron Man’s thrusters and blasters, allowing for fast flight across impressive vistas, as well as aerial combat against drones and enemies, all seamlessly rendered and executed without causing motion sickness. Facing the controllers backward and pressing the triggers propels Iron Man forward, and facing them down thrusts him up into the air. At any point, the player can press a button to hover in place, or raise either controller to engage in combat, causing Iron Man’s open palms to fire blasters or his closed fists to shoot different missiles depending on your unique hand motions. It all feels instantly natural and easy to learn, though difficult to completely master. The movement speed might be unmatched for a VR title, as the game effectively simulates the sensation of being Iron Man, of staring through his helmet’s heads-up display (HUD) as you fly around large and detailed skyboxes, above cities, and through canyons.

The most well-known depiction of the Marvel character is Robert Downey Jr.’s lovable playboy from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An argument could be made that this take on the character is so dependent on the actor’s charisma that it’s impossible for the fiction to truly engage with the comic character’s often antagonistic legacy, or the grim reality of such an individual. Contrast this with the different Iron Man comic runs that show him as an alcoholic misogynistic prick with daddy issues and a history of violence. (Iron Man is the villain in the Civil War comic crossover, after all.) A key thematic difference between the 2008’s Iron Man, the film that effectively launched the MCU, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is that the former film believes that a wealthy neoliberal playboy emboldened with expensive gadgets and a penchant for violence is the solution for society’s ills whereas the latter doesn’t.

Iron Man VR isn’t sure either. Here, Stark has turned his back on selling weaponry. An emblem of pacifistic heroism, he’s nonetheless forced to fight enemies harmed by his business after his jet is downed by supposedly decommissioned Stark drones, putting love interest Pepper Potts in the crosshairs. From this point, the game splits into missions that send Iron Man around the globe attempting to stop attacks on cities and well-known Marvel locations like the SHIELD Helicarrier and sections where the unarmored Stark grapples with his history from within his mansion and, later, the dilapidated cave where his superhero identity was born.

While the game’s combat segments are visually impressive and a great deal of fun, with varied enemies and locations, sections where Stark is disempowered stand out for taking advantage of VR as a medium to tell the man’s story. A late-game stretch where Stark, trapped in collapsing subterranean cavern, has visions of those who perished because of his arms sales is unusually dark and mature for superhero game fare, taking advantage of mechanics popularized in horror titles like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood instead of mainstream VR titles.

Further, Iron Man VR smartly uses two B-tier villains as Stark’s nemeses. The first, Ghost, a victim of warfare disfigured by one of Stark’s weapons, wishes retaliation and control on the protagonist. She essentially represents Stark’s superego, while the second antagonist, Living Laser, is an id-driven monster empowered with the kind of technological abilities as Iron Man but with no moral center or humanity, lashing out at innocent people instead of coming to their aide. The game suggests that this is what an unchecked Stark could have become. The finale, a large-scale battle with the physical manifestation of Stark’s unchained ego, completes the trifecta, defining Stark’s greatest enemy as the war-loving individual he grew out of. Iron Man VR treats the character and mythos with an unusual level of respect and self-examination, rendering it more interesting than any of the Iron Man films.

Sony Interactive Entertainment did not respond to our requests for review code. This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Camouflaj Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation VR Release Date: July 3, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Violence

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last of Us Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last of Us Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)

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



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

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

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

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

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

Alder’s Blood

Alder’s Blood (Shockwork Games)

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

Desperados III

Desperados III (Mimimi Games)

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

Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal (id Software)

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

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)

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

Half-Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)

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

If Found...


DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Scaife

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)

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

Lair of the Clockwork God

Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)

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

The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)

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

Moving Out

Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)

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

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

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



Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

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

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

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

Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) – July 17

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

Iron Man VR (PSVR) – July 3

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

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

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

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

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

July 2020 Releases

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

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Review: Xenoblade Chronicles Earns Its Definitive Edition Moniker

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




Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
Photo: Nintendo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Desperados III Is Perfect for Gunslingers Without Twitchy Fingers

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




Desperados III
Photo: THQ Nordic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Persona 5 Golden
Photo: Atlus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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