Connect with us


Review: Dead or Alive 6 Is a Soft-Core Fighter Stacked on More of the Same

Throughout, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre.

Jed Pressgrove



Dead or Alive 6
Photo: Koei Tecmo

As you play the fifth sequel in the Dead or Alive series, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre. Sure, Dead or Alive 6 offers up features that are new to the series, like blood effects and a super meter, but those are bells and whistles culled from a decades-old industry playbook for games of this sort. Meanwhile, the most distinguishing factors of the Dead or Alive franchise—from an emphasis on counters to its interactive stages—have long lost their luster or, in the case of their sexily dressed female characters, curdled into predictable fetishism. If the goal of Dead or Alive 6 is to appear over-familiar, this entry is a roaring success.

If you’ve never played a Dead or Alive game, there are few fighting styles and moves here that don’t bring to mind other 3D fighters, such as the titles in the Virtua Fighter and Tekken series. Developer Team Ninja surely knows this is the case, and so it attempts to woo its predominantly male audience with a cast of mainly young female martial artists, some of whom, based on their playful attire and attitude, feel as they’ve been pulled from a daddy/daughter fetish porn. While Dead or Alive 5 added visible sweat to character bodies, Dead or Alive 6 opens up the possibility for dirt to accumulate on the skin and attire of its fighters. One might say this addition reflects the consequences of battle, but once you see, say, a very young and coquettish woman with soiled stockings, it’s clear that the game is primarily aiming to titillate by serving up a lite version of mud wrestling.

One of the defining concepts of the Dead or Alive series is a button that allows you to reverse the various melee attacks of your opponents. The idea behind this mechanic is to give the player a toolkit that can stop competitors from spamming kicks and punches. In theory, dedicating a button to counterattacks encourages an evolution of action, forcing rivals to mix up their combinations and approaches to avoid being stopped. But rather than lean into or reimagine this standby, Dead or Alive 6 includes an additional special button that plays off the Break Gauge, essentially a super meter. As in many fighting games, the gauge fills up as you inflict and take damage. When filled enough, the gauge enables you to initiate offensive and defensive techniques with the special button. But at this stage in the genre’s history, the meter and its associated moves feel less like an innovative wrinkle to a formula and more like a capitulation to a trend popularized by Capcom’s Street Fighter series.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Dead or Alive 6 is its stages, specifically their different environmental effects. One level has scattered explosives waiting to be triggered. Another boasts an electrified barrier. In a particularly entertaining arena, you can smash your opponent into a giant egg that inspires a mother pterodactyl to snatch and drop the unfortunate recipient of your blow. Yet even this one clever moment carries a hint of staleness, as it’s quite reminiscent of the disruptive dinos on a similar stage in Dead or Alive 4.

In line with its predecessors and some of its contemporaries, Dead or Alive 6 lets you juggle opponents in the air after you knock them off their feet, but the game demands virtually no skill for its ridiculous displays of unanswerable hits. Eating away 30-to-50 percent of a foe’s health bar with juggles here is only slightly more complex than dialing a phone number. Contradicting the franchise’s dedication to counters, the game’s juggling mechanic leaves your victims completely helpless. It’s another reminder that running old tricks into the ground in order to reward the fanboy’s thirst for domination, and in unchecked fashion, will be the legacy of Dead or Alive 6 and so many other fighting games.

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

Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 1, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game



Review: Persona 5 Strikers Is a Cathartic Punctuation Mark in the Persona Series

Strikers is still a well-earned vacation for our heroes, an emphatic, energetic punctuation mark to a much larger experience.

Justin Clark



Persona 5 Strikers
Photo: Atlus

The opening hours of Persona 5 Strikers feel like a family reunion. The series’s tightlipped protagonist, Joker, returns to the Leblanc coffee shop and to all his favorite people, the Phantom Thieves, a tiny bit older, a tiny bit wiser, and with an entire golden summer ahead. Regardless of whether or not you see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s going to hit you hard to see these friends together and know that the world is open to them, but this one scene would be meaningless if the remainder of the game didn’t sustain the stellar character development and world building previously established by Persona 5.

That success wasn’t expected, considering that Strikers is, on paper, another familiar Omega Force musou game—not exactly the gold standard when it comes to storytelling. But in action, this is a glorious outlier in the arena of games that take more than a few pages from the Dynasty Warriors playbook, as this isn’t a Dynasty Warriors game with Persona 5 characters, but a full-fledged Persona 5 sequel whose combat system just happens to bear a mild resemblance to that of a Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash-athon.

For that reason, Strikers is also slightly less accessible than other musou games. Having played Persona 5 all the way through is a necessity going in, in ways that reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms or playing Breath of the Wild isn’t necessary before taking on, respectively, Dynasty Warriors or Hyrule Warriors. Strikers takes place six months after the original ending to Persona 5 (aside from Showtime attacks, there’s a dearth of callbacks to Persona 5 Royal), and many of the rules of combat—in terms of how collecting and leveling up Personas, magic, weaknesses, technical hits, and stealth work—are virtually unchanged. The difference is having to execute all of this in real time, against legions of cannon-fodder Shadows, and dozens of tiny smart decisions have been made to not only make facing those hordes feel fast, fluid, and gratifying, but to ensure that each Phantom Thief is distinctly unique in their own way.

While prepping to hit the road to enjoy an idyllic summer, the gang hits a few supernatural roadblocks, discovering a wave of incidents in which seemingly normal folks are upending their entire lives in service of certain cults of personality: a pop idol, a famous manga creator, a city’s beloved mayor, among other influencers. The Metaverse—the psychedelic nightmare world ostensibly demolished at the end of Persona 5—looms large again over our heroes, not just playing host to each influencer’s warped psychedelic prison, where each has crowned themselves Monarch, but to the crystallized stolen hearts of everyone under their thrall. The only clear connection between the Monarchs has to do with the release of EMMA, a new virtual assistant/social networking tool run by a shady new tech company.

In case you thought that Atlus would follow in the footsteps of other developers wanting to make clear that they’re not intent on making political statements, rest assured that Strikers exudes the same mean, anti-authoritarian streak as Persona 5. It’s upfront about it, starting with its fundamental contempt for police, personified by Zenkichi, who helps the Thieves along the way but never fully earns their trust, and for good reason: He’s a snake playing both sides, planning right from the start to find an excuse to take the Thieves down.

There’s a slightly different mood, though, to the rebellion at the heart of Strikers, as the story takes its time to not so much hate the players but hate the game. The villains this time around are still twisted manifestations of cardinal sins, but we’re consistently shown the engine behind their evil, and the root of it all largely comes down to a few detestable old men. The payoff is enormously rewarding, especially as it homes in on EMMA’s creators—glad-handing caricatures of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and any number of nameless hedge fund types and private equity stooges who are selling humanity as their product. The only real issue with the game arises when it shifts focus away from that allegory in the final act, the game stretching on two dungeons too long to say what it needs to say. You feel that a little more given how much shorter Strikers is compared to Persona 5.

Mind you, “shorter” is a relative term here. Strikers easily stretches into the 60-hour range. However, the half of the game that you don’t spend in the Metaverse strikes a nice balance between high- and low-stakes thrills. The cases popping up all over Japan give the Thieves the perfect opportunity to turn business into pleasure, road-tripping all over the country, taking in sights, sounds, and ever so much incredible-sounding food. More importantly, the company is wonderful, especially given how much the Thieves have grown up as people since Persona 5, approaching the world with an eye for the future and without regret.

The game’s other half does involve slipping into the Metaverse to steal hearts and slay anything that stands in the Thieves’s way, but it’s a rather nicely streamlined experience compared to Persona 5. The ticking-clock mechanics are gone, meaning you can dip in and out of the Metaverse at any time to rest up, buy provisions, and upgrade weapons all in the same in-game calendar day. The gameplay loop is designed to allow all the time you want to explore either world at your leisure. The price, though, is that the slightly truncated experience doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for building new relationships, or jobs, or seeing movies, or any of the other random activities that are the mainstays of the Persona series.

And yet, it’s easy to forget just how much all of that started to feel like work in the original version of Persona 5, especially the longer that its campaign stretched on. Despite all the fighting you will do here, and despite all the room that the developers have made for sociopolitical theater, Strikers is still a well-earned vacation for our heroes, an emphatic, energetic punctuation mark to a much larger experience. The newfound real-time chaos of its combat is just one more avenue granting these kids the ability to revel in their freedom, in a way that not a lot of real-life kids—or adults, really—can at this moment in time.

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

Developer: Atlus, Omega Force, P Studio Publisher: Atlus Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 20, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Review: Super Mario 3D World Lives Again, and Bowser’s Fury Points to the Future

Bowser’s Fury finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions.

Justin Clark



Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
Photo: Nintendo

When it launched on the WiiU back in 2013, Super Mario 3D World felt like a revelation, for indicating that Nintendo was beginning to seriously chart a new path forward for its bread-and-butter platforming franchise. The game is a veritable amusement park of novel ideas and mechanics wrapped into kinetic puzzle solving, and more than one subsequent Super Mario Bros. release carries the trace of its influence. Perhaps inevitably, Super Mario 3D World feels all the more at home on the Switch alongside Super Mario Odyssey, which all but perfected its already winning formula back in 2017 before taking it to the stratosphere. The icing on the cake? The inclusion of a new game, Bowser’s Fury, that finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions.

Running, jumping, collecting coins and stars, bouncing on enemy heads—these have been the foundational mechanics of the series since the release of the original game in 1985. But there were major shakeups along the way, none more seismic than 1996’s Super Mario 64, from which Super Mario 3D World took more than a few pages. True innovation is often doled out in small doses across Nintendo’s flagship series. Typically, a Super Mario Bros. game hinges on one main gimmick for an entire campaign. By contrast, Super Mario 3D World is a game of gimmicks. Instead of dropping players into an expansive open world, it has you scale stage after stage of self-contained wonder, bursting with clever delights that rarely repeat themselves, and more importantly never outstay their welcome.

Walking into any given stage, you never know exactly what needs to be done to get to the goal. A straightforward romp through a meadow could shoot you into a cloud and have you running for your life at full speed across the heavens. (As such, the only major upgrade offered by this Switch port—a noticeable improvement in movement speed, addressing a long-held complaint about the WiiU version—will feel like a mercy to returning players.) A disco-themed stage has platforms that disappear and reappear on beat, then throw a curveball with a cherry item that lets Mario replicate himself up to four times, with enemies doing the same, and puzzles requiring a set of Marios to work together in tandem. A Japanese pagoda stage requires using the touchscreen to open doors, hit gongs, and smack enemies—and stealthily so, if you want to successfully gather all the stars after putting on your Goomba costume.

Super Mario 3D World introduced a new power-up, the Super Bell, that allows players to turn into a cat, one of the bigger—and most hilariously endearing—shake-ups to ever grow out of the series. With the suit, players are granted the power to vertically scale surfaces, and as high as possible. Not just an invitation to players to go exploring to their hearts’ content, the suit’s power works to fully obscure just how linear the stage designs actually are.

These are largely the sorts of seed ideas that would fully bloom in Super Mario Odyssey and ones that Bowser’s Fury takes in ambitious new directions. Set in a tropical paradise overrun by cats—lovingly influenced by Japan’s famous real-life “Cat Island”—a toxic sludge has turned Bowser into a massive, unholy kaiju terror who rains fire across every inch of the landscape, and it’s up to Mario and Bowser’s own son to figure out how to cut him down to size. Doing so involves gathering up Cat Shines—basically, Super Mario Sunshine’s collectables but with cat ears—and using them to power lighthouses scattered across an island chain.

That will sound familiar to anyone who’s played Super Mario Odyssey, but there are no extra lives here. Dying costs coins, thus finally giving them an actual purpose for the first time in the series in decades. Every island is connected and wide-open, which makes the experience of playing the game less about raising the flag at the end of a course than anticipating Bowser’s approach, forcing you to gather resources fast enough to escape his barrage of fire, rain, and lightning. And it’s a more nerve-wracking experience than one might expect.

Across Bowser’s Fury’s three-to-four-hour campaign, Mario isn’t beholden to the rules of each stage, but rather the world is beholden to him, and the player by proxy. By removing the boundaries between levels and pitting you against an ever-present threat, the game forces you to look at its world as an interconnected network of challenges. Even an aimless traipse around the island never feels without purpose. Whether you find yourself making a beeline for the nearest Cat Shine or simply hanging out with the family of cats who live on an impossible ledge, the island paradise of Bowser’s Fury is a joyous invitation to wander.

Which isn’t to say that Nintendo crammed each stage with collectables and meager sidequests. Bowser’s Fury really breathes with a sense of freedom and spontaneity, letting you approach the Bowser problem in whatever way you see fit. The goals for each quest may follow the typical Mario rules, but failing at it never feels like a bottleneck. When things get hairy, you’ll find yourself, yes, farming power-ups or simply looking for areas of safe harbor, but you don’t feel the game pulling you toward a flag or star nearly as much as past titles in the series.

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

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: February 12, 2021 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Review: Little Nightmares II Mines Terror from the Fears of Children

At its best, the game sustains an effectively ominous atmosphere as it channels recognizable childhood fears.

Ryan Aston



Little Nightmares II
Bandai Namco Entertainment

Few games have so effectively captured the disempowerment of being small as the original Little Nightmares across its singular setting: the Maw, an enormous vessel where kidnapped children are feasted upon by disgusting corpulent beasts that feel sprung from the imagination of Edward Gorey, by way of claymation anti-surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The Maw imposes on players an unmooring sense of the unknown that, coupled with the wordless narrative full of intricate, ambiguous details and the experience of playing as a diminutive, raincoat-wearing little girl, makes traversing the vessel uniquely thrilling.

At its start, Little Nightmares II promisingly exudes the fairy-tale aura of the original as the player takes control of Mono, a barefooted boy with a paper bag over his head who’s trapped in a forest where an enormous hunter captures and disfigures his prey. After a terrifying escape from the hunter’s house alongside Six, who returns here as your AI companion, the children find themselves lost in a derelict water-logged town called the Pale City, where all the adults have seemingly disappeared and the only remaining residents are hideous monsters.

As with the bestiary from the original game, Little Nightmare II’s enemies, monstrously exaggerated versions of adult authority figures, channel recognizable childhood fears. The School, the game’s first area, is home to a deformed grinning Teacher with a horrifying extending neck that reaches around corners to find troublemakers. Her captured students seemingly become the vicious Bullies who patrol the school, their porcelain craniums caved in, suggesting the kind of vicious actions they’ll take if they apprehend Mono or Six.

At its best, Little Nightmares II sustains an effectively ominous atmosphere for long stretches. In a sequence where the camera zooms in close on Mono, slowly creeping underneath the legs of twisted mannequin things that can spring to life and attack him, the sense of menace is palpable. This is a graphically stunning game, not only for its disturbing menagerie of Brobdingnagian terrors and creepy derelict wastelands, but also for the way that developer Tarsier Studios treats the vulnerability of being a small, defenseless child as the campaign’s emotional engine. In a particularly unnerving sequence, Mono withdraws into himself as he creeps past a looming menace, and you may find yourself shaking in lockstep with him.

Despite its memorable antagonists and their threatening behaviors, both Little Nightmares games aren’t particularly violent. More so than Playdead’s Limbo and Inside, which often find their child protagonists dying in drawn-out, gratuitously cruel fashion, Tarsier Studios’s titles are fixated on deriving tension from the suggestion of violence, cutting away from Mono and Six whenever they’re caught by a predator, leaving their demise to our imaginations.

Of course, this game’s too-loose controls could also use some of the tightness and precision of Playdead’s titles, especially during combat sequences where Mono must time the swings of a melee weapon to an audio cue in order to attack enemies before they can maim him. The controls also frustrate during certain sections that demand careful trial and error to get the boy to sneak past or escape from a particular fiend. Unlike its predecessor, this game makes less room for error, and after you’ve had to restart a section more than a few times, you may find that the game has undercut its aura of fear, as well as its sense of fun.

Little Nightmares II finds creative ways of making its locations feel fresh, namely through its foregrounding of a child’s point of view and the eerie ambience of its unique imagery, such as a hollowed-out ward where patients’ beds are suspended over a pitch-black void and a crematorium that resembles the witch’s house from Hansel and Gretel and is ultimately used for the same purpose. And that creativity goes a long way toward quelling the impression that no setting here—from the school to the hospital to an apartment block—is as memorable as the Maw from original Little Nightmares, and that the gameplay is treading a well-worn path.

One of the most unnerving sequences in the original game finds Six being pursued by bloated cannibals foisting themselves all over each other to get to her—an intense chase that makes a show of the girl’s size as she flees from her attackers’ gruesome buffet. A version of this chase happens at least five times in Little Nightmares II. And while Six is a handy and memorable AI companion, capable of being utilized as a guide or for support, it’s unfortunate to see her so often forced into a position of helplessness here given how perfectly capable she is at other times. A frustrating inconsistency, for sure, but it’s one that only barely compromises the experience of playing a game that, as it reaches its provocative conclusion with an abundance of savage shocks and twists, reminds us that some fairy tales don’t have happy endings.

Developer: Tarsier Studios Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: Xbox One Release Date: February 11, 2021 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Violence Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Review: Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood May Unleash Your Rage Monster

The gameplay throughout isn’t freighted with moral urgency, which is disappointing given the game’s eco-terrorist themes.

Aaron Riccio



Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood
Photo: Nacon

Cahal, the jacked-up protagonist of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, channels his rage into a righteous crusade to save the environment—a show of eco-terrorism that will feel more than justified. Indeed, if the unsubtly named Endrom weren’t dangerous enough with its reckless oil drilling, it’s also injecting its biofuel—the titular Earthblood—into its employees, transforming them into demons. For good measure, the corporation fridges Cahal’s wife in the game’s prologue and later kidnaps his daughter.

That’d be enough to drive an ordinary man to violence, but Cahal is also a werewolf. Once he transforms into his two-legged, half-wolf Crinos form, and to the beat of a heavy metal soundtrack that’s as loud as his roar, he knocks foes and objects alike into oblivion in a blur of rushing, swiping ultraviolence. Earthblood, then, has the essential components to be a righteous, fast-paced action game. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that it undermines itself with cumbersome stealth mechanics, especially on higher difficulty levels.

Earthblood suffers from an identity crisis, one that doesn’t stem from the differences between Cahal’s human and four-legged Lupus forms, but from Paris-based developer Cyanide’s failure to give players more than one way to proceed through a level and never making that linearity feel particularly purposeful. There’s a level here, in which Cahal has to find a way to kill two prison inmates without being detected, that may have you wishing you were in the terrain of Hitman, where you can infiltrate a locale and assassinate your targets in a variety of ways.

Worse, your choices here aren’t freighted with moral urgency, which is disappointing given the game’s eco-terrorist themes. For example, whether you’re gathering information on a paramilitary training site or attempting to sabotage a dam, the only consequence of getting caught is that Cahal must activate his rage and murder every guard in the area before proceeding to the next area, with the next batch of patrollers you encounter none the wiser.

Perhaps the development of the stealth came at the expense of the combat, or vice versa, but the result is a game where almost every encounter feels like an unthinking chore. Either Cahal is surrounded by spongy foes who can consistently interrupt his attacks and dodges, killing him rather quickly, or, if he gets a little bit of breathing room, he’s unleashing skill after skill, decimating everything around him. No room has been made here by Cyanide to discourage players from adopting such a violent, head-on approach, or punishing them for it.

As for the stealth sequences, they’re even more agonizing. The only gadget that Cahal gets is a crossbow that he can’t seem to aim correctly, resulting in area after area of you doing the exact same routine: waiting behind a fence until a guard comes close enough for you to instantly kill him, hoping all the while that your takedown doesn’t give away your position. Earthblood does inadvertently nail the way in which rage triggers combat—that is, the game’s sloppily designed stealth is bound to lead frustrated players to just brute-force their way through the campaign.

The strongest part of Earthblood is its lore, which is pulled from the tabletop role-playing series The World of Darkness that includes both Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyanide has done a compelling job of lacing the war between a triune of spiritual forces—the Wyld, Wyrm, and Weaver—with ecological concerns. Advancing the cause of the Wyld are the werewolves, who help their Guardian Spirits protect nature from those who would pollute it, while corporations like Endron act as proxies for the Wyrm as they seek to destroy the planet, and humans sit in the middle like the Weaver, playing both sides.

For how rooted it is in real-life ecological concerns, this lore feels purposeful, even as the story becomes increasingly cliché. Earthblood also offers glimpses of the better, richer game that could have been in between missions, when Cahal is free to roam through portions of Washington State Forest and the Nevada desert, chatting up his clanmates, human collaborators, and various lesser spirits. It’s here that he can find objectives on his own by using his Penumbral Vision and starts to move with agency—a sense of freedom that’s washed away in blood whenever you’re handed yet another checklist of tasks to complete and sent down yet another identical-looking corridor leading to by-now repetitious combat.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by HomeRun PR.

Developer: Cyanide Publisher: Nacon Platform: PlayStation 5 Release Date: February 4, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Strong Language, Violence

Continue Reading


Indie Roundup: Bonkies, Olija, and NUTS

Nuclear Jenga, anyone?

Aaron Riccio



Photo: Studio Gauntlet

Some games are cute because they want to be, while others are cute because they have to be. Bonkies (Studio Gauntlet), a maddening but engrossing couch co-op game, falls squarely in the latter camp. The reason why your block-toting astronauts are all jetpack-wearing monkeys—and dogs, koalas, and pandas—is because if they were anything less than adorable then you’d probably murder them. The same is likely true of your couchmates: Only play with those you love, because the game will test your relationship to them.

Bonkies is a bit like Tetris, but played through a clumsy intermediary. Instead of simply having to place blocks in an orderly fashion, players must retrieve them from conveyor belts, fly them to a designated area, and then carefully rotate and stack them within outlines, sometimes using wireframe pieces or hover blocks to scaffold the increasingly unstable structure. And while there’s a single-player mode designed to teach players the ins and outs of the various block types, from rocket ones that help to thrust heavier objects to glass ones that will shatter if placed too roughly, the vast majority of the game is based upon players working together to move these blocks, as they’re too unwieldy to single-pawedly carry across a level.

The physics and time constraints are perhaps a little too precise given how insane and elaborate some of the later levels get. The frustrations of similar games like Overcooked were manageable because they came in short, frenzied bursts of gameplay, as you could still complete a level if you messed up an order or two, and if you had to restart, you’d only be losing a few minutes. By contrast, a mission in Bonkies only has one objective to complete, and any mistake can send minutes of work down the drain with no hope of recovery. Your chimps, being programmed the way they are, have no choice but to remain cheerful as their thrusters overheat and their spacesuits shatter. Except it’s far more difficult for the players to remain calm as a fragile green fusion block gets jostled ever so slightly, causing it to explode and take your whole elaborate building down with it: nuclear Jenga, anyone?

Early on in Olija (Devolver Digital), a retro pixel adventure game, your shipwrecked playable character, Faraday, stumbles upon a mystical harpoon that, once thrown, he can instantly teleport to. It’s a liberating mechanic, both in the context of the game’s lightning-fast combat, which has Faraday warping between enemies, and the aerial platforming, which often requires Faraday to use the momentum of his hurled weapon to traverse spiked pits. Sadly, all of this freedom feels imprisoned within the game’s all-too linear structure.

The Terraphage archipelago has various infested creeks, desolate beaches, and creepy shrines to explore, though not freely. Faraday can only direct his boatman to docks shown on his map, like the Royal Domain, Fallen Town, and Old Archives. The map fragment that reveals additional locations is found in that latter area, but to make any progress there you’ll have to retrieve a key from each of the other two locations. The levels themselves are even more straightforward: There’s the occasional hidden collectible, but it’s never more than a single screen removed from the main path. And because Faraday never gains any abilities beyond teleportation, you’ll never have to return to a cleared region to reach a formerly inaccessible secret—not that there’s any reason to, given that the only reward for freeing Faraday’s imprisoned crewmates is, at best, a line of thanks back in your hub “town” of Oaktide.

On the positive side, the disconnected nature of Olija’s structure allows the game to showcase entirely different environments on each island, and for the player to experiment with varied gameplay elements. The best of those experiences center around Faraday’s wordless flirtations with Olija, Terraphage’s ruler. In one area, Faraday must stealthily procure and then place a rose on Olija’s balcony; in another, a playful duel with the queen is frequently interrupted by slow, passionate gazes. Olija also does a fine job finding different horrific notes to hit, whether you’re fleeing a churning mass of shadows, scrabbling up a mountain of corpses, descending a tunnel that’s punctuated by hanging skeletons, or just traveling through a mine of soulless wretches who shuffle aimlessly and harmlessly after you. Ultimately, Olija is more of a guided tour than a free-roaming expedition, but at least some of the sights are memorable.

Once, Professor Nina Scholz of the Viago Institute meticulously documented the local squirrel population of Melmoth Forest, stymying the efforts of the Panorama corporation to build on that protected land. NUTS (Noodlecake Studios) begins in earnest 15 years later, as players take on the role of Nina’s research assistant, doing the grunt work required to help her to recreate her scientific study and once more stop Panorama from exterminating the flora and fauna of the region. Those are understandable stakes, so rather than render the forest in detail, the game’s developers instead use a stylish minimalist approach that keeps the focus on your squirrel subjects, contrasting their standout white or grey fur against a vivid palette of warm orange and cool blue outlines, depending on the time of day.

Each chapter here takes you to a different region of the forest, and more or less maintains the same feedback loop. During the day, players use their GPS tracker to locate a designated site, mount a camera there to observe it, and then, at night, play back the footage in order to look for squirrel signs. The actual surveillance of these animals is the meat of the game, gradually growing in complexity from a single camera/monitor to having three at once—which is useful, as you may need to track multiple squirrels, or locate a squirrel at specific timestamps.

If the trial and error of planting cameras in an attempt to predict and trail a squirrel’s path feels somewhat repetitive and laborious, that’s the point. NUTS wants you to understand how difficult and time-consuming it can be to do a scientific study, to see how stacked the odds are against those who would dare to protect wildlife from corporations. Rest assured that the cataloguing efforts are still gamified enough to keep things from getting too onerous. The constant repetition and readjusting of cameras also serves to attune your perspective to that of a squirrel’s, helping you to see tree hollows that might serve as useful stashes, or which trees might be scaled to offer you a new path forward. Alas, NUTS goes a little too far afield in the end, following so much in the tiny footsteps of these loveable scamps that it loses sight of the corporate malfeasance. Then again, there are worse things than getting lost in nature.

Continue Reading


Review: The Medium Is Richly Atmospheric, but Its Gameplay Is Stuck in the Past

The Medium is at its best whenever the player gets to lives up to the game’s title.

Justin Clark



The Medium
Photo: Bloober Team

Bloober Team’s The Medium has the prestige of being the first Series X exclusive, yet it feels like it’s two generations old, a time capsule escapee trying to stand out in a world where even stubborn old buzzard franchises like Resident Evil have found a way to get their groove back. The game clings tightly to the old ways—static third-person perspectives, wonky character animations, stilted voice acting—and is quaint in its approach. The setting and premise are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of horror, as the game takes place in an abandoned hospital, which has given many a developer an easy slam dunk to deliver the goods. The power of the Series X is most certainly being harnessed to render this derelict monstrosity in painstaking, filthy detail, but it’s got no backup on the gameplay front.

The most forward-thinking thing that The Medium has going for it is that the developers had the good sense to hire Silent Hill series’s ace composer, Akira Yamaoka, to co-write the score. He brings a richly eerie and unique aural dimension to The Medium that compliments the grim, unsettling atmosphere on display throughout, moments where you’ll find yourself constantly on guard. Of course, it isn’t long before it becomes clear that most of the time there’s no threat to be afraid of. What passes for gameplay here is pure exploration and illogical puzzle-solving. Every time the game gets a full head of steam, building up fear and dread to a fever pitch, it’s broken up by collectathon mechanics or far-too-forgiving stealth against easily avoided enemies straight out of every 14-year-old edgelord’s notebook. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad game, but it does make for an unengaging one.

Set in Krakow in 1999, The Medium does slightly better on the narrative front, placing you in the shoes of a woman, Marianne, who has the ability to not just see and talk to the dead, but also traverse their world, a hellishly forbidding mirror image of our own. After her adoptive father passes away, Marianne receives a panicked call from a man who runs Niwa, a long-term care facility, begging her to come and help. The trail to her mystery caller leads Marianne to the facility’s deep, dark, violent secrets, which are relayed to us through psychic echoes that only Marianne can revisit by tuning into these memories via everyday objects.

The Medium is at its best whenever Marianne lives up to the game’s title. The campaign is dotted with small little stories within which she plays the role of supernatural usher, guiding ghosts down the right path. These are the tales of dead people trapped in the rooms of their terrible ends, haunted by unfinished business, grudges needing to be put to bed, anger and sorrow yearning for catharsis. And these stories are often executed with a subtlety of detail and empathy for the broken and beaten that’s absent almost everywhere else in the game.

A case in point is the game’s big and scarcely impactful hook. At certain points, Marianne can exist simultaneously in the land of the living and the realm of the dead, with both worlds visible on screen at the same time, and while there’s certainly technical wizardry at work making the effect possible, and the realm of the dead is a well-imagined bit of dark artistry, we’ve also seen smarter and more compelling iterations of the same idea in recent years (Titanfall 2 immediately comes to mind). Here, it feels very much like the gimmick that it is, and in no small part because it barely bolsters the story that the game is trying to tell about the place that traps the dead, and the atrocities that put them there.

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

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Bloober Team Platform: Xbox Series X Release Date: January 28, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Sexual Themes, Use of Tobacco, Strong Language Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Review: In Hitman III, a Familiar Formula Alternately Skids and Soars

Hitman 3, for better and worse, splits the difference between player freedom and focused storytelling.

Steven Scaife



Hitman 3
Photo: IO Interactive

The best Hitman missions are big and open, set in a picturesque place where bald assassin Agent 47 can go about murdering his targets in a variety of elaborate ways. Most of those options involve impersonating other people by wearing their clothes. But every so often, the series tries linearity on for size. Its worst levels constrain your sense of freedom as you try to off an architect of some illicit criminal operation, funneling you into a more rigid style of play that restricts 47’s movements. With the exception of 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, where they’re the main focus, these levels tend to come late in the games, when developers ratchet up the tension by guiding players through increasingly flashy, bombastic sequences where being able to deviate from the script would ruin the drama.

Starting in 2016, Hitman reclaimed its mojo with the release of the sixth mainline entry in the series, simply titled Hitman, which features some of the most complex, freeform levels ever devised by the development team at IO Interactive. While Hitman 3 still follows that same blueprint, the series’s restrictive instincts again rear their head just as they have in the climaxes of the pre-Absolution games. And that was perhaps inevitable, given that this game is the dramatic conclusion to what IO has called the World of Assassination trilogy and dramatic conclusions have never been Hitman’s strong suit. Hitman 3 is another attempt, for better and worse, to split the difference between player freedom and focused storytelling.

Some levels now, for example, begin or end on set paths made to dole out plot details. The first mission finds 47 scaling the outside of a Dubai skyscraper, nudging you toward a mission story that shepherds your two targets into one room so another character may confront them with a dull monologue on a TV screen. In Chongqing, you must eliminate two targets in order to access a computer terminal, which then triggers a lousy escape sequence that throws squads of guards toting automatic weapons into your path. The game doesn’t, at least, force you to complete these sections again on any further playthroughs, which is important for a series built on replay value, but creating shortcuts to bypass them feels like a begrudging admission of how extraneous the story segments are compared to the meat of the game.

Lest there be any mistake, the familiar rhythms of the latter-day Hitman games are intact here, as the open levels are filled with amusingly convoluted assassinations and “accidents” to set up, as well as disguises that let you access areas otherwise off limits to civilians. Levels from 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 also slot neatly into this game’s menu, accessible to anyone who owns the prior titles or paid for an access pass. Hitman 3 visibly has the bones of two of the greatest stealth games ever made, which is a tough thing to ruin in one fell swoop. For one, it’s wickedly inventive, from a hilarious drug dealer outfit that 47 can use to lead victims off into secluded corners, to deaths involving things like an industrial grape crusher and an experimental mind-meld. And your deadpan avatar still cracks ominous little jokes to himself across storylines that intersect in bizarre, surprising ways.

But not all of the game’s tweaks to the series’s winning formula are successful. One much-touted mission drops 47 inside a British mansion, where a murder mystery that doesn’t involve him is in progress. While there are various ways of killing your target, the level seems primarily designed around one path where you impersonate a detective character and search the mansion for clues, in the process showing off the new camera gadget that hacks certain locks and scans objects for information. And beyond the disappointing dearth of possibilities outside the central detective story, the camera feels extraneous at best and harmful to the flow of Hitman 3 at worst, requiring you to repeatedly select it from the inventory screen and look around in first person for something to scan. Combined with the occasional need to search an environment for fuses or keypad codes, the game slows itself down at odd times, encumbering an elegant design with extraneous layers that culminate in a terrible, if mercifully brief, epilogue that strands 47 in the most narrow space that this series has imagined to date.

One of the game’s best levels, set at a Berlin rave, finds 47 roaming a crowded factory in an attempt to identify and eliminate enemy agents, able to pick and choose targets based on who you think you can get to. Compared to the more story-heavy flourishes, this level finds Hitman 3 going back to the basics of having 47 simply hunt down targets in a large area, sans any guided mission stories. Compared to the convoluted cartoon heights of the best assassinations from prior games in the series, the factory level may sound disappointingly simple. But in the context of this particular game, it marks a momentarily invigorating shift for a series that, while still quite enjoyable, seems in danger of once again losing the plot.

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

Developer: IO Interactive Publisher: IO Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: January 20, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language

Continue Reading


Review: Cyberpunk 2077 Is an Immersive but Too Familiar Vision of a Future Past

To criticize Cyberpunk 2077 for being hypocritical and conservative feels almost beside the point.

Steven Scaife



Cyberpunk 2077
Photo: CD Projekt

Sinister Asian corporations, cybernetic eyeballs, robot body parts, neon as far as the eye can see—every trope of the cyberpunk genre has been accounted for in Cyberpunk 2077, the messily launched new title from Witcher developer CD Projekt Red. Though based on a tabletop RPG made to echo the genre’s ‘80s heyday, the game functions as even more of a nostalgic catch-all, with the physical design of its expansive Night City setting made to evoke memories of Blade Runner, Akira, Neuromancer, and many more. Not for nothing is Cyberpunk 2077 doggedly devoted to a first-person perspective, as it understands that its appeal resides in that you-are-there feeling of exploring an intricate yet vaguely familiar sci-fi world.

In the game, you can inhabit the skin of a mercenary who goes only by “V” and takes any job that drops a handy icon on the open-world map of Night City, California. There are places to drive to with people to shoot, items to collect, and objects to remotely hack, which can allow you to, say, play vending machine jingles to distract guards or reboot their eyes so you may sneak forward undisturbed. Think of first-person quest-takers like Bethesda’s Fallout games, only with combat that feels a little more crunchy and gratifying. Think, too, of immersive sims like Deus Ex that build missions to accommodate multiple playstyles—only don’t think about them too hard because the comparisons don’t quite work out in Cyberpunk’s favor.

On consoles, the game’s launch has been so disastrous that companies have started to offer refunds. On PC, the game is still buggy but significantly more stable, the degree of its busted-ness reminiscent of myriad Eastern European projects whose ambition far outstripped their technical prowess. But Cyberpunk 2077 sits at a curious crossroads, because its design isn’t so wildly ambitious that it practically demands credit for trying something weird and new; much of the game checks off the usual hallmarks of big-budget open-world design. If the resulting work has buckled beneath an attempt to marry immersive sim interaction to a more traditional open world, there’s a sense that it still hasn’t gone far enough. You can choose to sneak or hack your way through a mission rather than shoot, but these options aren’t much more robust than the gunfights due to fairly restrictive level layouts and dim-witted AI guards that nevertheless go on high alert all at once.

Cyberpunk 2077 breaks progression up with the intent of keeping things satisfying for the long haul, but in practice leaves much of the early parts of the game feeling thin and basic. It will be many an hour before your hacking tools expand beyond a distressingly limited set of abilities. There’s not enough weapon variety to make the prospect of new loot a particularly enticing one, and the level-up screen is such a headache to navigate for so little payoff that there’s little satisfaction to watching the numbers get bigger as you get stronger.

Oddly, though, these deficiencies can work in Cyberpunk’s favor. A game like Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds struggles to meaningfully indict corporations in no small part because its mechanics are tied so firmly to the consumerist lust for more. In its comparative ineffectiveness, Cyberpunk 2077 avoids the traditional gratification that might blunt its dystopic atmosphere by leaving you to happily hop between reward screens. You never really aspire to hang out in Night City, as it’s crowded and dirty, choked with vending machines for synthetic burritos, uncomfortably hyper-sexualized billboards, and characters constantly pestering you about used cars. You can’t even dress well if you’re paying attention to your defense statistics, because adhering to the various clothing’s nonsensical armor stats inevitably leads to a gaudy mismatch. The only thing that seems to feel conventionally “good” is the thrill of the kill, for which you never seem to be paid enough anyway.

Cyberpunk 2077

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077. © CD Projekt

If none of these shortcomings are intentional (and they certainly do not seem to be), they at least work to foreground Cyberpunk 2077’s storytelling, ensuring that the digital carrot on a stick is less the promise of a new toy than the next stage of some planned heist or the next development in your relationship with some of its better characters. For a game with such an in-your-face aesthetic that so insistently funnels you into bombastic shooting segments, Cyberpunk 2077 leaves a surprising amount of space for small, human details provided by characters who are allowed to be adversarial and hard to like. Keanu Reeves lets his inherent affability ground the unchecked asshole narcissism of his character, the rocker-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand, while player character V tends to be an opportunist whose hedonism and aspirations toward grandeur emerge from the setting’s distinct hopelessness. And many of the side quests and plot developments don’t necessarily lead to combat at all. Indeed, the parts of the game that work best are those that leave you to soak in CD Projekt Red’s grimy future vision, while characters take smoke breaks or kick up their feet.

The relevance of that vision, though, is another matter entirely. Like any genre that enters the realm of instantly recognizable set dressing, a lot of modern cyberpunk is as much about reflecting societal ills as it is simply about referencing itself. If many of the genre’s hallmarks emerged out of at-the-time anxieties, they have persisted due to the tendency of further cyberpunk works to pay homage, asserting their place in a fashionable genre rather than reinvent the wheel for continued relevance. The expected “yellow peril” element, for example, is rooted in the racist fear of a booming ‘80s Japan subsuming America through increasingly prevalent technology, despite the fact that so many of the present-day corporations to fuck the American people sideways are distinctly homegrown. Themes of corporate exploitation feel similarly perfunctory, an expression of genre fealty rather than a genuine point of view. Certainly, the game’s existence is darkly, deeply ironic, an ostensible cry against corporations made on the back of widely reported worker exploitation and deceptive marketing, only the latter of which a campaign of growing backlash has deigned to really fixate on.

But to criticize Cyberpunk 2077 for being hypocritical and conservative feels almost beside the point; its very existence is an argument against its radicalism, speaking to a wider societal comfort with its themes and aesthetics, if not a tendency to appreciate them only on a superficial level. It’s an extravagant, big-budget game realized through the resources of a corporation that rightly believes, as many other corporations believe, that large-scale anticorporate art is more likely to spur people to spend money than to sever ties with the companies that have become inextricable from their lives. To demand better representation from the machine is to ultimately ask for an alternative use of corporate resources, a way for us to feel momentarily better about handing over our money for a distraction that will affirm what we already know to be true about the world.

For better and worse, Cyberpunk 2077 is what it was always going to be: less a work of intensely relevant speculative fiction than a nostalgia piece for yesteryear’s vision of tomorrow. Sometimes, it even works.

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

Developer: CD Projekt Red Publisher: CD Projekt Platform: PC Release Date: December 10, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Review: Immortals: Fenyx Rising Is an Epic Copy-and-Paste Experience

The blandness of the gameplay might have been somewhat forgivable if the game’s narrative didn’t suffer from an identity crisis.

Justin Clark



Immortals: Fenyx Rising
Photo: Ubisoft

At a glance, Immortals: Fenyx Rising suggests Baby’s First Assassin’s Creed Odyssey—and that’s no coincidence, as many of the same developers worked on both titles. But it’s not long into the game that you’ll also discover that its mechanics have been copied wholesale from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: the free-soloing traversal, the physics-based puzzle solving, the loose approach to story progression, even a few of the abilities you gain over the course of the game. That wouldn’t be an issue if Immortals, like Breath of the Wild, invited players to use the tools at their disposal to create bespoke solutions to almost every problem, but Ubisoft isn’t interested in handing you that sense of free will.

A customizable Greek soldier, Fenyx, washes up on the shores of the Golden Isle, home of the Olympian gods, to find its people—including their brother, Ligyron—turned to stone, and the gods transformed into plants and animals. And after stumbling upon a few artifacts left behind by some of Greece’s mightiest heroes, you set out to free the gods and undo the spell, as well as discover just how much Immortals has copied other innovative studios’ homework without truly grasping its fundamentals. Take the early mission during which Fenyx must roll a giant pearl down a hill—so obviously designed to thwart momentum—and to the ocean in order to return Aphrodite to power. What could have been a nicely satisfying moment where the pearl rolls down and crushes everything in its path turns out to be a quite literal Sisyphean trudge, given the awkward break halfway down for an unnecessary combat sequence.

Combat in Immortals takes more than a few pages from the Assassin’s Creed playbook, with simple button mashing broken up by enemies attempting big windup attacks that you can parry. But the experience here is missing the big flashy finishing moves and chain attacks from the titles in Ubisoft’s most popular franchise, which means you’re mostly just button mashing away at enemies for much of the first third of Immortals with nothing to break up the monotony—until all of a sudden you’re absurdly powerful, and as a result can coast through the rest of the campaign. Not even the minigames and sidequests offer much of a reprieve, as they’re similarly undercooked, with the exception of a cute musical activity involving playing a melody on a lyre, then hunting down a mega-sized lyre in order to repeat it.

The blandness of the gameplay might have been somewhat forgivable if the game’s narrative didn’t suffer from an identity crisis. Immortals can’t decide whether it wants to be a cartoony redux of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a sincere portrayal of the Greek gods and their dramas, or a whimsical, Fable-esque fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter in the end, since it fails at all of them, largely because of the latter. The sporadic moments of storytelling that manage to intrigue, play on our emotions, or inspire a small sense of visual awe are undercut by the narrative conceit of a chained Prometheus recalling Fenyx’s tale to a Zeus who cringe-inducingly sounds like Grand Theft Auto IV’s Roman Bellic doing a Borat impersonation.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Immortals is what you get when a better, more ambitious game has had all of its edges sanded down. Even its title change, from the evocative Gods & Monsters to its present one, feels like a deliberate softening of ambition, from a statement of authorial purpose to some mistaken attempt to get players to project their own meaning to the whole experience. In the end, just about the only truly unique element to Immortals is its sense of humor—one that’s of a distinctly lazy and irritating vintage but proves perversely memorable given how every other aspect of game works so hard to be forgotten.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Quebec Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: Xbox Series X Release Date: December 3, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

Continue Reading


Indie Roundup: Mørkredd, Call of the Sea, and Monster Sanctuary

Mørkredd is dazzling for the way it effectively puts you at war with yourself.

Aaron Riccio



Photo: Hyper Games

Most co-op games are predicated on teamwork, timing, and coordination, but the moody Mørkredd (Hyper Games) feels like the first to recognize how difficult a carefully crafted collaboration can be to sustain. That’s because here, as in Tunnel Vision Games’s Lightmatter, walking into shadows results in death, so as you and your partner roll a mysterious glowing sphere through a series of eerie, largely deserted shrines, you must not only avoid the hazardous darkness cast by otherwise innocuous scenery, like columns and trees, but also the umbral trail of your teammate.

In addition to this interplay between light and dark, Mørkredd smartly uses wide and tight shots to emphasize the environments and your place within them. When the camera zooms out to reveal an Eldritch horror slithering beneath the chasm you’re crossing, or a solitary eye blinking out of the water you’re rowing above, you may find yourself pondering your insignificance. And yet, as the camera pulls in tight on the life-giving light that staves off the deadly darkness across the game, it also acknowledges that these two mere transporters carry the weight of someone or something’s world on their shoulders.

There’s no shortage of unsettling sights in Mørkredd, like trees that flinch as you approach them, revealing themselves to be giant shadowy hands. But the game is truly brought to imaginative life as you travel into the bowels of a living, breathing titan. Until this point, your light source has merely been transforming common objects into deadly obstacles, but it now illuminates a host of organic horrors. One memorable stretch will find you dodging pits that pockmark a fleshy floor while rolling past exploding pustules and parasitic tendrils that seek to drain the light. And by the time you’re tasked with murdering this monstrosity—shattering its teethy barriers and preventing its synapses from firing—only for it to be fabulously reborn, you’ll be dazzled by the way the game so effectively puts you at war with yourself.

A green, thunderous fog fills the sky, framing the shadowy carcass of a ripped-apart freighter. The ominousness of this environment, one of many dazzling ones spread across Call of the Sea (Out of the Blue), is all that’s needed to convey Norah Everhart’s inner emotions as she searches for her husband, Harry, on a mysterious island off the coast of Tahiti. Unfortunately, though, we also get to know Norah through an inner monologue that sheds way too much explicit light on those emotions. Regarding her vivid dreams, she muses: “I’ve had them repeatedly ever since my mother died and left me that awful old music box.” But for the most part, the game is wise enough to shut up and let players get lost on this puzzle-laden island.

The linear, chapter-based structure of Call of the Sea ensures that the puzzles stay focused and that backtracking is kept to a minimum, all the while mirroring Norah’s state of mind. When she first lands on the island’s beach, everything is bright and hopeful. But the next chapter’s jungle is more oppressive and darker, as befits the narrative put forth in the logs and photographs that she finds in the abandoned campsites of Harry’s failed expedition, which tell of madness and disease. That third chapter, featuring a ruined ship and an eerie thunderstorm, finds Norah at her lowest point, and it’s telling that this section’s central puzzle places her right at the edge of a rocky precipice. It’s only by facing things head on and manipulating the tidal pools like the pipes of an organ that she’s able to forge a new path forward.

Call of the Sea brings Myst to mind—yes, because of the island setting and the first-person puzzling, but, more crucially, because of how firmly the game roots its mechanisms in a recognizable reality. Sure, those mechanisms have an otherworldly quality, like the one that lets you temporarily breathe beneath the water or operate rocks like elevators. But the research left behind by Harry validates them, especially as you see how his team tried to jury-rig workarounds using modern-day materials scavenged from a shipwreck. Also, the game’s puzzles aren’t arbitrary obstacles, but part of a legacy left behind by the Naacal people. Those rhomboidal motifs that appear throughout their language, architecture, and contraptions? Those are symbolic stars, a nod to the culture’s reliance on the sky above as well as the sea below. And it’s the seriousness with which Call of the Sea links history to its puzzles that makes it impossible to dismiss the game as just another Myst knockoff.

Every game aims to have a hook, something to suck players in hour after hour. Monster Sanctuary (Moi Rai Games) has four different ones, all engrossing enough on their own but collectively overwhelming in the best possible way. There are monsters to collect and train, all with lengthy skill trees, and there’s a Metroidvania-like world to explore with the aid of each recruited creature’s traversal abilities. There’s a challenging turn-based combat system that ranks players based on their combo-juggling efficiency and exploitation of enemy weaknesses. And then there’s the story, which could’ve settled for simply putting you, a novice keeper, in opposition with a quartet of evil alchemists out to subvert the powers of the refugee monsters. Instead, each monster gets nearly four pages of backstory, and NPCs often provide helpful history lessons about the schism between the Old World and those of you in this sanctuary.

Monster Sanctuary is proof that looks can be deceiving. The simple pixelated backgrounds and character sprites and monster-collecting theme evoke childish play, but the game’s battles are complex, requiring you to spend at least a little time theorycrafting your way through the skill trees, finding not just the right build for an individual monster, but for an entire team. For one, you might initially set your yeti-like Yowie up as a tank, raising its health to make the most of passives that automatically heal the whole team while also strongly debuffing foes who strike him. Further down the road, you might redistribute its skills to instead have it serve as the leadoff attacker in your trio, unleashing a barrage of fisticuffs that boost your combo meter—and, with that, the damage of your next two monsters. Later still, you might make it part of a team that exploits status effects, with its ability to chill a single enemy now chaining to every foe and carrying with it other ailments like armor down and poison.

Given its difficulty and refusal to handhold players, Monster Sanctuary can at times frustrate. Monster eggs, which allow you to hatch new creatures into your party, drop based on how well you’re doing in combat, which requires some experimenting and grinding in each new area in order to get a rank high enough to increase drop rates. Without putting in this work, even non-boss fights may suddenly spike in difficulty. But it’s only by refusing to play it safe with all of its hybrid systems that Monster Sanctuary, which can make a game Pokémon seem like a walk in the park, is able to come up with something that feels new and worthwhile.

Continue Reading