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Review: Slay the Spire Is a Thrilling Deck-Building Roguelike

There are few greater thrills than discovering a new, powerful combo in Slay the Spire.

4.5

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Slay the Spire
Photo: Mega Crit

The Seattle-based Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire is another one of those games, a roguelike that tasks you with trying again and again to reach a particularly difficult outcome, learning as you go. The journey to climb the Spire is long, hard, and just about endless; your progress resets after each defeat in battle, reshuffling monsters, items, and events to provide a freshly randomized start uncluttered with the remains of any prior run. It’s a worn template applied to countless games and genres at this point, notably last year’s Dead Cells. But what sets Slay the Spire apart isn’t just its complex, rewarding card battle system, but how its deck-building reveals the heart of the roguelike subgenre.

As one of three vastly different characters, players make their way from one turn-based encounter to the next. Cards represent the actions of the average role-playing game: attacking, defending, and applying status effects to either enhance player abilities or hinder those of the enemy. The actions available during a turn depend on what cards are drawn and how much energy can be used, from a default of three. In order to attack, you need to have drawn, say, a basic Strike card and spend one of the energy points required to play it. At the end of a turn, you discard whatever remains in your hand, sit through the enemy’s actions, and then your turn begins again, where you refill energy, shed accumulated defense points, and perhaps shuffle and reuse the discard pile if you’ve run out of cards to draw.

Slay the Spire’s hook, and by far its most fascinating feature, is that you build a deck as you progress, starting from a handful of basic cards. Battles, random events, and merchants are all plotted on a map of branching paths reminiscent of FTL: Faster Than Light, and all reward players with more potential cards to add to a growing arsenal. Though the game offers a staggering network of possibilities, those nuances unspool gradually, never overwhelming players with too many complexities, too many cards to consider that supplement too many roles to play. Instead, you take things as they come, developing a strategy scrounged from whatever cards present themselves; for instance, combinations that served you well on a previous run might depend on a rare card that never appears on the next attempt.

The randomly generated nature of roguelikes means that the subgenre runs on the thrill of discovery, and there are few greater thrills than discovering a new, powerful combo in Slay the Spire. But what truly augments that thrill is the game’s willingness to introduce new variables that might upend your play style entirely, making radical revisions to what initially seems like a simple battle system. Items called relics might provide additional energy, guarantee a certain card will appear in your hand at the start of combat, or permanently stop you from discarding your hand at the end of each turn. The basic attack/defense rhythm quickly grows into something more, as players might find themselves discarding half their hands, dealing additional damage with each zero-energy Shiv card they’ve plucked from thin air while designating enemies to explode upon death. Modifiers for daily challenges or custom games might permanently decrease the player’s maximum health after every room or give access to the cards typically only available to the other characters.

But for as much as Slay the Spire is about feeling powerful through near-overpowered combos and realizing that, with the right card or relic, nearly every rule in the game can be altered, it also requires players to recognize their limitations. A large, unwieldy deck might leave combos from the early stages out of reach, as new cards take up valuable real estate in your hand. Disaster awaits when you’re unable to commit to one playstyle because you’re eyeing several others. Just as integral to feeling out new combos is the knowledge of when to stop, when to eschew certain rewards, or outright remove cards from the deck.

Enjoying Slay the Spire doesn’t demand any particular affinity for card games or deck-building, because while it clarifies the appeal of both, the game hinges entirely on roguelike hallmarks: adapting to new circumstances and planning ahead based on knowledge gleaned from prior runs. Deck-building, with its drip feed of new cards and on-the-fly strategizing, becomes the purest expression of the roguelike’s existential core. Stealth games and platformers task players who don’t succeed on the first try with learning level layouts and enemy patterns so that they may overcome challenges that remain the same. A roguelike’s randomization emphasizes that whatever skills and knowledge players gain aren’t necessarily enough, leaving us to plan as best we can for an arbitrary, uncertain, and totally unforgiving future, fumbling in the dark for ways to get the light to burn a little brighter. Perhaps the randomness will buoy you just enough to eke out a victory. Or maybe it will destroy you.

Games like Spelunky, FTL, and The Binding of Isaac provide a highly insulated window into everyday struggle, allowing us to measure whatever knowledge, skill, and stuff we’ve acquired against a potential for ruinous, permadeath defeat. They force us to come to terms again and again with a failure that, while profound, allows us to continue with what we’ve learned, pressing onward into something new, to slay some other Spire.

The game was reviewed using review code provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Mega Crit Publisher: Mega Crit Platform: PC Release Date: January 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: DiRT Rally 2.0 Celebrates the Driver’s Will to Try, Try Again

At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports.

4.5

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DiRT Rally 2.0
Photo: Codemasters

After you unlock only the second rallying event in DiRT Rally 2.0, the game’s extreme difficulty is dryly confirmed by the British voiceover: “Some might suggest this is where your first real challenge awaits.” For newcomers to the world of developer Codemaster’s rally simulators, the understatement of that quote might sting as much as it inspires laughter. Throughout, you might spend numerous hours struggling to find out how to deal with understeering, oversteering, lack of tire traction, vehicle instability, track degradation, unideal weather, and the sense that, no matter how focused and careful you are, you’re just not fast enough to keep up with your competitors.

But this is no arcade racer, after all. It’s the sequel to what some critics have called the best rally sim ever. In rallying, drivers don’t race head to head on a circular track, but rather take turns zipping along on literal roads—whether gravel, dirt, asphalt, or various combinations thereof—that might cut through forests, towns, mountains, and water. As the lone car on the track, your goal is to make it to the finish line in the shortest amount of time, but one good performance isn’t good enough. A rallying champion, according to this game, must achieve the best composite score across several miles-long tracks within multiple countries.

At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports. As your vehicle weaves through the beautiful fall-season trees of New England or rocky terrains of Argentina, you can’t help but ponder the bravery of individuals who confront ever-changing street and weather conditions and live to see another day. Your tragic incompetence in DiRT Rally 2.0 allows you to empathize with the hypothetical real-world competitors who nail one death-defying turn after another before misjudging a single kink in the road that sends their vehicles through a fence and rolling down a hill.

Mercifully, you can at any point in the game open a pause menu and restart a track so that your composite score isn’t ruined by a slight miscalculation on your part on a given track. A purist might say that this fundamentally contradicts the reality that rallying is a death-defying sport where there are no second chances, but a restart is often what the common player needs to maintain the will to keep trying within the framework of an otherwise viciously unforgiving game. For a title without a clear tutorial—and for one that can make Dark Souls seem like a walk in the park—the unrealistic do-over option is a necessary mercy.

Half the battle here is figuring out what car works best for you based on how it operates on a variety of surfaces. Though acclaimed, the first DiRT Rally was criticized for not making car and road types feel distinct—a limitation that’s been solved here. Not only can you almost taste the dirt and gravel kicked up by your vehicle, the difference in traction between rocky terrains and asphalt roadways is unmistakable. Likewise, the superior handling of a car, such as the gorgeous Lancia Fulvia HF, that weighs less than 2,000 pounds cannot be overstated.

For those interested in a more recognizable form of racing, Codemasters has more than doubled the original game’s number of rallycross locations, where five drivers jockey for position around the corners of a racetrack. Although the rallycross events don’t feature the natural surroundings of rallying competitions, they can seem more visceral as you bump and ram into your rivals. Between these races, you might find yourself tinkering countless times with your car selection and setup, as many rallycross cars are built more for power than graceful maneuvering. Stay patient, however, and the subtleties of executing a win—how to anticipate the green-light signal that starts the race, when to steer into an opponent, and what modifications to make to a vehicle—will take shape in your mind, leading to a deeper appreciation of a sport that’s foreign to almost all of us.

Developer: Codemasters Publisher: Codemasters Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 26, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Metro: Exodus’s Evocative Open World Starves for Nuance

The game ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

3

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Metro: Exodus
Photo: 4A Games

Previous Metro games found texture through their limited scope. As seen through the eyes of Russian soldier Artyom, people in the subway tunnels beneath an irradiated Moscow cobbled society back together from the ruins of the old world while dealing with mutants, sickness, and rival factions built on all-too-familiar forms of extremism. 4A Games’s epic Metro: Exodus expands the series beyond those familiar claustrophobic tunnels, placing Artyom’s gaze firmly on the horizon as he and his companions journey across Russia by train, searching for a new home free from the ravages of humanity.

Appropriately, the game’s metaphor for its expanded world is to make parts of it literally open for the player. Artyom is now free to roam wide-open spaces—to peek into desolate houses for abandoned supplies and scout points of interest from a distance. All around you, mutants search for food, and bandits survey the wasteland from within ramshackle fortifications. The game is still driven by story segments, many of which fall back on the Metro series’s familiar brand of desperate survival horror; players creep around in the dark to conserve resources before a firefight breaks out or before massive spiders skitter through the rays of a draining flashlight. Other segments, though, take advantage of the world’s openness by providing multiple routes to do things like infiltrate a train yard, one of which might bypass a cluster of zombie-like humanoids entirely or drop Artyom right into their toxic nest.

The series is, as always, evocative in its atmosphere and the interactions it affords the player, such as allowing you to wipe the condensation off your gas mask with a press of a button. And Exodus’s open areas only enhance this specific sense of place. They even carry the occasional emergent thrill, like stranding you in a rowboat while a winged demon dives from overhead, forcing you to paddle to safety on land and take refuge in what turns out to be a populated bandit camp with a towering mutant shrimp in pursuit. But Exodus struggles to incentivize exploration of its world. You grow accustomed to the rusted, landlocked boats and the anonymous houses that dot the landscape and contain, if you’re lucky, an audio diary or a new attachment for the game’s robust weapon customization system. Most of the time, though, you’ll just find the same crafting materials when you explore the wasteland.

Unlike many crafting systems, Exodus’s never has you create anything new so much as replace what you’ve used up: things like bullets, gas mask filters, and medkits consumed either in missions or, paradoxically, in the very act of scavenging materials. When playing with some measure of stealth (which the game encourages) and keeping an eye out for materials on the way to (as well as during) missions, you’ll rarely struggle with the resource scarcity that might actually require a risky journey out into the world. Exodus is most successful elsewhere, in one forested area that provides an open-ended approach to a fixed destination. Its environments and encounters are more authored than the bland open world, and its scavenging is purposeful because it’s the only way to prepare for the encounters ahead.

The game’s open world feels like little more than overly elaborate wrapper for an underwhelming story that loses much of its drama to an awkwardly silent protagonist. Though Artyom narrates loading screens, he expresses himself in-game primarily by waving his hands around, as if miming because no one can hear him under a gas mask. His wife and his other companions refer to character traits we never see, alleged goals and ambitions conspicuously jammed into lengthy dialogue sequences. He’s supposed to be a dreamer. For one, the idea of a world beyond the metro is Artyom’s, yet none of that passion or hope ever comes through.

Not that the game thinks much of those apparent hopes, of course. The series’s typically dim view of humanity is on full display for much of Exodus’s length, as Artyom and his companions encounter terrible new societies birthed in distant parts of Russia. The game depicts people as easily subjugated when society breaks down, clinging to whatever is offered to them. Despots prey on desperation and fear, offering hope through perversions of community, religion, or protection. Violent forces upend what seem to be safe havens.

Exodus’s sweeping critique of humanity is practically nuance-free. Here, dissent among followers is rare, cultists are unquestioning fanatics, and cannibals screech “MEAT!” and jot the word down in unintentionally hilarious diary pages. Even slaves uniformly cower before their masters, weeping and begging for sympathy. Despite introducing an open world, the game is very much a forward journey, barely spending enough time in one place to inject any complexity to its exploration of how society claws its way back from the brink. You’ll hear the leaders of each group speak but seldom the people who follow them. They have no more voice than Artyom, no more interiority. Just as Artyom is essentially an anonymous pair of floating hands, the people that his party encounters often represent little more than simplistic avatars of a post-apocalyptic society gone mad. Exodus ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

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

Developer: 4A Games Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PS4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Kingdom Hearts III Is a Pedestrian Trip Down Memory Lane

The little that’s good here isn’t enough for one to shake off the faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts III
Photo: Square Enix

The Kingdom Hearts series takes a simple fan wish-fulfilling premise—an action adventure featuring popular Disney characters who become friends with your hero—and complicates it with an unnecessarily dense and largely incoherent backstory concerning multiple generations of protagonists, a time-traveling puppetmaster, and an organization of possessed bodies in ornate trench coats. Despite more than 13 years having passed between the last numbered sequel in the series and its current installment, little has changed when it comes to the Kingdom Hearts formula. Savant Sora returns with his casually abusive pals Donald Duck and Goofy to journey through the worlds of various Disney feature films, all leading to an ultimate confrontation with the evil-or-not Xehanort.

In terms of gameplay mechanics and level design, Kingdom Hearts III has evolved so little since its forebearers that it feels less like a product of its time than it does a PlayStation 2 remaster. Each level consists of blocky open areas that your mostly pushed through in linear fashion, though the characters occasionally stop to fight enemies in arena battles before proceeding onward. The combat has been reworked (here it’s mostly the same as that of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), but the clunky, chaotic, seemingly unending battles favor endless button-mashing over precision. Nearly every skirmish is a mess of hard-to-follow on-screen activity, with dozens of same-y foes and effects flying in your face. Perversely, though, Kingdom Hearts III seems to be aware that its gameplay is a chore, allowing most combat sequences to be avoided by simply running past them.

The game is notable for the inclusion of levels inspired by recent Pixar and other Disney 3D films, but almost none take advantage of their source material in any meaningful way. The levels inspired by Frozen and no one’s favorite Disney outing, Tangled, serve up nothing but unvaried landscapes and gameplay. Worse, when Kingdom Hearts III specially references notable sequences from these films, such as Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go,” the game does so with clumsy, overlong cutscenes, leaving us to imagine what it might have been like to actually take part in the action—to, say, have been invited to control Sora and interact with the ice castle as Elsa creates it from the ground up. Which is unfortunate, since that invitation to engage with Disney’s film art was one that was gladly extended to the player by Kingdom Heats II, most memorably in its inventive black-and-white world of “Timeless River” (based on Walt’s classic Steamboat Willy) and the Tron-themed “Space Paranoids,” which was set inside a server where the protagonists fight programs and compete in Light Cycle battles.

It’s only late into Kingdom Hearts III’s campaign, around the time that the worlds of “Keyblade Graveyard” and “Final World” are introduced, that the game begins to take its action in interesting directions, and just ahead of tying a bow on the overarching story. Here, Kingdom Hearts III somewhat successfully merges disparate, convoluted plot points from the entire series into an almost comprehensible whole, though that’s not enough for us to shake off the depressingly faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

Consider the frustrating treatment of love interest and series favorite Kairi, who’s damselled as part of a disappointing trend of rendering Kingdom Hearts’s female characters helpless. Worse, protagonist Sora is an idiot in the Monkey D. Luffy mold: childish, stupid, and largely useless if not for him being an all-powerful “chosen one,” and not for any narratively or thematically justifiable reason. (The game seems aware of his generally pathetic nature, based on how often other characters insult and degrade him.) Sora is the embodiment of a participation trophy. Not that the others in this Calvinball soap opera hold much value either, as they speak entirely in empty platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, frequently distilling any narrative action down to the clumsiest metaphors about the power of friendship.

This is ultimately the biggest failing of Kingdom Hearts III, a game pitched as the finale to a series so many have grown up with but one that hasn’t matured with its audience or video games as a medium. It pretends to have something consequential to say in its bombastic conclusion but delivers only the most childish of dogmas. To the very end, the game’s subtext-free lore remains intentionally impenetrable, if for no other reason than to give the impression of actual depth. At the same time, Kingdom Hearts is in total adoration of itself as a concept—a brand and a commodity to sell. Kingdom Hearts III literally begins with two trailers for itself, a title card, then another trailer for itself and another title card, followed by another title card as a self-referential jab at the nonsense naming conventions of the series (“KINGDOM HEARTS II.9”) and finally a fourth title card two hours later. (It’s worth noting that these trailers feature much more stylistic and interesting combat sequences than anything you’ll stumble upon in the game proper.) Kingdom Hearts III offers a rote experience that rarely rises above mediocrity, failing to deliver on the promise of its lengthy campaign or as a meaningful conclusion to the dozens of games in the series that have preceded it.

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

Developer: Square Enix Business Division 3 Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 29, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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