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Review: Pyre

Almost every element ties into the game’s overarching theme, which calls into question rules and tradition.

4.5

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Pyre
Photo: Supergiant Games

Don’t let its nearly 200-page rulebook fool you: Pyre isn’t some burdensome, overly complicated action RPG. If anything, its sports-like combat favors loose experimentation and quick thinking, not rigid theorycrafting and preplanned plays. The length of its Book of Rites, an illuminated manuscript with sparkling calligraphy and pictures, stems from all of the details that fill it out. The book is a labor of love, not a litany of laws, and the majority of its pages present enjoyable (and entirely optional) elaborations on the various arenas, locations, and competitors. In many ways, this applies to the game itself, which, like Bastion and Transistor before it, crams colorful, technical details into every hand-drawn frame.

Pyre isn’t uncomplicated, but the precision that Supergiant Games brings to the project makes the finished project seem effortless. There are some obvious inspirations behind the choose-your-own-adventure wagoneering; the three-on-three rituals in which players must find a way to plunge a celestial orb into the other team’s pyre (or goal) calls to mind the over-the-top dodgeball of Stikbold! But Pyre uses familiarity only as a touchstone. The remainder of the game is spent ensuring that it feels wholly unique and, more importantly when it comes to gameplay, well-balanced: a fast-moving cur may be able to double- or triple-jump around foes but has a tiny aura with which to block opponents; an equally swift, slithering wyrm can’t jump but can lay down a watery aura trail that he can whip back across at any point.

Pyre is simultaneously a sports game for people who get tired of the repetition of sports games and an RPG for people who get tired of grinding through telegraphed battles. Each of the game’s nine arena-like Celestial Landmarks has its own unique conditions to adapt to, whether that’s deftly leaping across volcanic chasms in the Nest of Triesta or coping with the narrow boundaries of the ship-bound Hulk of Ores. Some of the nine rival Triumvirates may have their own nasty tricks, like the way in which the nature-attuned Chastity can summon up thorny obstacles, while others adopt risky formations, like the way in which the flying harps of the Essence sometimes aggressively begin a round at midfield, already in possession of the orb.

Throw in some random wacky weather conditions, like a destructive meteor shower or pyre-drenching deluge, and it’s reasonable to assume that no two matches are ever going to be the same. Taking on optional moneymaking challenges from the audience (Rites of Glory) or combat handicaps that yield additional experience (Enlightenment) only make things more diverse.

All of these factors neatly tie into the game’s overarching theme, which calls into question rules and tradition. This can occasionally be a little frustrating, as Pyre doesn’t always allow you to play it the way you might; thanks to unpredictable bouts of summoning sickness or moral outrage, your roster may sometimes shift at the last minute. In a particularly clever twist, players are forced to get rid of their most-used characters; those who are redeemed in the rare Liberation rites must leave the party immediately, forcing those who are left behind to make up the difference. There are no Game Over screens (as with sports, the season continues regardless of personal performance), but this means that those looking to influence a specific outcome or see how a particular storyline resolves itself have to be especially careful of their decisions. There’s no scaffolding to keep them on a specific track.

Pyre boldly offers a glimpse of what freedom truly means—a sport in which you may sometimes want to deliberately throw a match, an RPG in which you may selfishly deny closure to a party member because you don’t want to lose their skills. Pyre is remarkably easy and enjoyable to play, but there isn’t an inch of it that’s simple, that isn’t in some way stuffed full of artful reflection on what it means to fundamentally play a game.

Developer: Supergiant Games Publisher: Supergiant Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 25, 2017 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Tobacco Reference, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 Is a Blast, and in Spite of Its Split Personality

The game doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks.

3.5

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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
Photo: Ubisoft

O say can you see, perhaps by the dawn’s gleaming light, the mortars bursting through air? That’s the impression Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 so clearly wants to evoke as it asks you and up to three squadmates to determinedly scramble from the cover of one barricade to the next. There’s a story baked in there somewhere, something about reclaiming the various districts of Washington, D.C. from a violent gang of criminals known as the Hyenas; the cultish, embittered, quarantine-surviving Outcasts; and the traitorous former military True Sons, who’ve carved up the country’s capital. But what most clearly comes through the muddled yet consistently entertaining The Division 2 is a narrative driven less by plot than patriotism. You don’t fight for the American ideal so much as for its iconographic representation. That’s evident in everything from the restoration of the White House to the liberation of the Washington Monument, as well as in the familiar dome of the Capitol Building coming closer into view as you make your way between barricades.

The Division 2 is a, well, immensely divided game. Sometimes this is the result of intent on the part of developer Massive Entertainment, like the decision to keep the PvE campaign content apart from the PvP Dark Zones, in which players can turn on one another—to go rogue in order to steal high-level loot from other players. In others, this schism speaks to some necessary compromises, like the way in which this challenging, unforgiving game that’s been finely tuned for a co-op multiplayer experience can often feel untenable when tackled solo: Encounters scale to the number of players in the party, but without a squadmate to revive you, loners have to adapt to a much slower, methodical, and long-range approach to missions.

But above all, The Division 2 is marked by a disconnect between its story and its gameplay. The details of the game’s already vague plot never seem relevant to any mission—so much so that it comes as no surprise that your radio briefings are often conspicuously drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and your squadmates yelling for help. Still, the adrenaline rush of battle, your need to survive, is almost enough to distract you from the lack of story. Indeed, this is a game that requires your full attention to be placed on the actual engagements and their scenic settings, from desperately seeking cover in the Air and Space Museum’s famed planetarium, to trying to hold the besieged stage of the Potomac Event Center’s theater, to looking to outflank enemy encampments in the forested areas of Theodore Roosevelt Island.

It’s fitting that The Division 2 takes place in America’s capital, because the game, like many of D.C.’s politicians, is driven above all by strong emotions, many of which are dangerously misguided, and with very few facts to back them up. The game’s introductory sequence doesn’t elaborate on the biological attack that left American in ruin; instead, it proselytizes on the importance of owning a gun. Post-collapse society is the Republican wet dream of limited government, where if you want something done, you just go out and do it by any means necessary. For all the weapons and skills—like drones, turrets, and nanobot beehives—at your disposal, there’s no variety to the overall conflict or various factions you encounter. Enemies are suicidal zealots who never negotiate or surrender; they just keep fighting until their health bar has been whittled away. In this way, the game echoes the devolution of the Tom Clancy brand itself, which once dealt in complex geopolitical entanglements before turning to a modern-day fetishization of guns and violent, paramilitary engagement.

There’s depth to The Division 2, but it’s evident only in its systems: the looter-shooter gameplay, the cover and co-op mechanics, and the min-maxing of equipment. The story is just the window dressing, a fact that becomes almost painfully obvious during a mission that takes place in a fictionalized version of the National Museum of American History. Here, players non-ironically fight their way through an ambush that takes place in a Vietnam War exhibit. There’s no consideration given to that historical conflict, just as there’s no deeper significance given to any of the battles in The Division 2. For the game, a war is especially “cool” to fight if it gets to play out within a memorial to a past one. But that drive to simplify history is at least consistent with the way the game doles out its McGuffins: Location aside, there’s no difference between retrieving batteries from a big-box retail store’s warehouse than there is from recovering the Declaration of Independence from the hallowed National Archives.

Whether or not the player notices the interchangeability of its objectives, The Division 2 still works like gangbusters, and in no small part because there’s an iron curtain between the various components of the game. Each mission is pretty much its own self-contained vignette, which leaves players free to tackle them in a nonlinear order, a choice enhanced by the way The Division 2 scales a party to the relative strength of the highest geared player. Without having to focus on the big picture, players can take in all the little ones. And the effect is almost liberating, like taking a vacation in D.C., albeit a run-down, war-torn version of D.C. in which you may have to save a bunch of hostages from the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool before using the selfie emote, or might have to disrupt an enemy convoy before getting to kick back in a quaint Foggy Bottom house with a terrific view of the Potomac.

The Division 2 doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks. And the best one is saved for last, with a fourth enemy faction—the Black Tusk private militia—showing up after players “beat” the game, which allows previously completed areas to be recycled with new objectives and enemy archetypes. There’s a “final” showdown that players can unlock against these enigmatic elites, but because the game isn’t driven by plot, this ends up being just another step on the loot treadmill, this time opening up access to exotic-tier weapons. Instead of revealing a deeper story, the game keeps unlocking deeper customization options, with a shift from merely collecting weapons and upgrading skills to crafting and tacking on modifiers for that gear and then choosing one of three specialization skill trees that reward long-range, explosive, and support classes.

Though there’s a less-defined storyline in The Division 2 than there was in its predecessor, every other nuance has been refined to keep players engaged in the post-game. It’s easy to jump into a quick bounty hunt, or to matchmake for higher-difficulty replays of the side, main, and stronghold missions, depending on how much time you have. The addition of clans provide a peer-pressuring incentive to keep logging on to work toward communal goals, and the splitting of the Dark Zone into three distinct areas is a smart way to cater both to PvP and PvE communities. Ultimately, whether you’re playing to take in the detailed Washington, D.C. scenery or simply to cause a scene, the game is optimally balanced to keep you hooked.

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

Developer: Massive Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 15, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Hypnospace Outlaw Is a Lament for the Wild West of the Early Net

The game masterfully uses its microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

5

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Hypnospace Outlaw
Photo: No More Robots

The technology at the center of Hypnospace Outlaw sounds futuristic: a headset that lets you access an online community while you sleep. But it’s also 1999, which means your brain-beaming helmet displays the limited color palette and grainy, pixelated artwork of an early internet, cursed with horrendous fonts that mingle with faintly terrifying 3D image renders and cursor trails. Nothing quite compares to the gaudy Wild West of the early internet, and Hypnospace Outlaw mines that eye-searing kitsch for pages upon pages of vivid, outrageous comedy as you dream-surf a privately owned net.

Throughout, you marvel at unfortunate interests like fan pages for rap-rock groups and chain letter-esque images that promise to ward off evil. You click through personal blogs and projects and advertisements grouped into zones according to shared subject matter. That’s the job, after all, since you play the game as an “enforcer,” a newly assigned moderator to the Hypnospace community. A purveyor of banal justice, you seek out unapproved commerce or strike down images and links with the divine hammer of copyright infringement.

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you’ll page through the teen zone and the conspiracy theory hub, but the game simulates more than just a web browser; an entirely customizable desktop runs the programs you find and opens downloaded documents. You can’t send email, but you’ll receive it. As you’re assigned more cases, the scope of the detective work begins to incorporate these other elements, requiring you to scan for references and redirects to pages tucked out of plain sight, accessible only through backdoor links, search keywords, or outside software that’s just as clunky to use as something from the early net era might have been.

The game could easily sustain itself on no more than this conceit, the base investigation and ironic appreciation of a World Wide Web still full of strategically deployed “under construction” banners. Instead, it uses those elements to build something both stranger and more ambitious, weaving a world of staggering consistency. Designers of HypnOS—the headset’s operating system—hang around their creation, and so do their commercial partners. You begin to pick out business strategies and creative decisions, to spot revealing nuances in page design, some as small as whether or not they redirect back to the home page.

The more zones you gain access to, the more familiar you grow with Hypnospace’s own terms and trends. Its users post images en masse to protest copyright removal, support underground music like “coolpunk,” or supposedly insulate themselves from “beefbrain.” Others make pages that recount the deepest cuts of a comic book bull’s history, link to spooky interactive fiction, discuss the nuances of “trennis,” and recount the erratic career trajectory of The Chowder Man, an aging rocker turned corporate sellout. Some of the autoplayed page jingles—all of them specifically, hilariously designed for the game—get stuck in your head regardless of how much they sound filtered through a tin can. Though Hypnospace Outlaw’s clear reference point is the early internet as we knew it, the game is more about exploring the developers’ own unique spin on the web pre-Y2K, which is so distinct that it never devolves into a round of spotting real-world references. Hypnospace, after all, is a world of its own.

To a point, the game is about pointing and laughing at the outdated presentation of user-created web pages, but it’s careful not to fall into easy parody. Hypnospace users are totally sincere about their creations, or totally sincere in their insincerity. They live in their present, and that present is one where every page hosts disastrous touches like an eyesore font or a 3D emoticon with a terrifying rictus grin. While you become accustomed to, and begin to appreciate, such idiosyncratic Hypnospace trappings while you moderate content, the web pages seem to build partial portraits of the people behind them: thoughtful writers, edgy teens, misanthropes, simpering wannabe cool kids, myopic control freaks, and people who feud through amateurish MS Paint-like art because they see too much of themselves in each other. Snippets of real life peek through every page’s design choice and written word.

You never directly converse with these people, but you come to know them by their work. They maintain their own projects and pages, displaying personas that are deeply personal because everything had to be built by hand. Hypnospace Outlaw functions as a kind of goofy lament for a personality that’s been diminished in the decades since, as social media corrals us into an infinitely more homogenous personal space. But the game never feels limited to its chosen era, as its depiction of obsessive personalities, crowd mentalities, and people who look for meaning by carving out a space online resonates all the way through to the present day.

For as much as the game pays tribute to the spirit of the early web, Hypnospace is certainly not a utopian vision. Even between the content you’re supposed to scrub, the place is absolutely ravaged by commerce and capitalism. Such a space must, of course, be monetized as much as possible. The desire to be recognized and heard by literally anything or anyone, to feel like more than voices that cry out into an online void from small towns where they don’t fit in, is exploited for corporate gain. Companies cash in on trends, marketing to children in their sleep. They pay people like you, volunteer enforcers of dubious corporate norms, in currency that can only be spent in Hypnospace. The company town has gone digital.

None of this stops Hypnospace Outlaw from being hilarious (one child’s drawing is too poor to qualify as copyright infringement), but it situates the game on the thread that connects comedy with tragedy, and endearing eccentricity with outright toxicity. The pain seems funny until you recognize that it’s real, learn that there are people behind those screens. The game is a monumental achievement, not just for its detailed rendering of another place and time but for the observed humanity of its writing and the things it has to say about the intersection of capitalism and art. Hypnospace Outlaw’s surprising thematic sweep transforms an already wondrous internet simulator into a striking commentary on the development of movements and communities even in the intervening decades, using this microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by No More Robots.

Developer: Jay Tholen, Mike Lasch, Xalavier Nelson Jr., ThatWhichIs Media Publisher: No More Robots Platform: PC Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Game

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