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Review: Surgeon Simulator: Anniversary Edition

At least it has a solid core of morbid humor that distracts one from the rest of the train wreck.

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Surgeon Simulator: Anniversary Edition

Just like it was only a matter of time before new-millennium irony started to bleed over into games with the wave of “simulator” games on PC, it was only a matter of time before these cheap, wonky hot messes made their appearance on a console. Grant Surgeon Simulator this: At least it has a solid core of morbid humor that distracts one from the rest of the train wreck. That’s still not to say it’s good, and it should definitely make everyone worry about what’s next.

Surgeon Simulator is predicated on a single joke: that the simulator is so incredibly shitty at simulating anything that performing even the most basic human functions involving a hand is a comedy of errors. It’s so easy and tempting within the first few minutes of play to start praying to whatever god you hold dear that a teaser for a new Trauma Center is hidden beneath this mess, P.T.-style. But it’s not. The game gives you a bare framework of controls, a cluttered desk to practice them in, and you’re off to the races to perform a heart transplant.

Being a fan of Trauma Center, a legitimately great series of games, puts the player at a disadvantage. It makes one expect things like logic and reason that have no place here. Here, the human body is basically a fleshy Mr. Potato Head on the inside, where organs can pop out and be tossed to the wayside at will if they’re in between you and your stated goal. Not that the game tells you this while you control only a single, disembodied right hand with the manual dexterity of Jordan Belfort on Quaaludes. You will fumble around for hours on end, trying to get the controls to cooperate just enough to break a man’s ribcage apart, like cracking open a gruesome crème brûlée, and without causing him to bleed to death. Trial and error is the only way you get anywhere here, and the game is banking on the fact that the errors are funny enough to carry a couple sparse hours of playtime. It is, and yet it’s not. As mentioned, it’s still an objectively terrible game if you’re talking about what’s required to perform the goals the game gives you.

And yet, through those terrible mechanics comes the uncontrollable laughter. It’s the brand of laughter that has made Cards Against Humanity a go-to party staple. It’s the laughter of terrible people. There’s an audience for a game that allows you to toss a clock radio into someone’s open chest cavity and hit the PS4’s Share button, or fumble around for 15 minutes just trying to get a decent grasp on someone’s brain that refuses to detach and lolls around an open skull like the world’s most horrifying cup-and-ball. Success in the heart-transplant level just involves hollowing out all the organs and literally just tossing a heart in there, while the victory message splats on screen: “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” There’s a Doctor Who-related trophy to be had here that pretty much ruins surgery and Doctor Who for everybody.

The kicker is that, with patience and a light enough touch, it’s actually possible to develop a measure of skill and get the procedures done with minimal damage to your virtual patient. The tools are there for it; dozens of tools are there for it, in fact. And yet, the rewards for developing that skill aren’t nearly worth the Sisyphean effort. You can perform the same surgeries in a bumpy ambulance, in zero gravity, or unlock an alien autopsy down the road, but these are all stages of diminishing returns. Enjoyment is gained by how badly you fail, and the game forcing the player’s hand in that regard feels like a cheat.

Therein lies the problem. The game’s best moments happen through repeated, varied attempts at failure. It’s the cackling, cynical, modern answer to the old WarGames line about not playing being the only way to win. The only way to love Surgeon Simulator is to suck at playing it. It’s the gaming equivalent of Snakes on a Plane. The Samuel L. Jackson actioner was ultimately a more refined specimen of film than Surgeon Simulator is a game, but the ethos is the same, and what it portends is the same. The audience is there for this kind of title, judging from the success of Goat Simulator, Soda Drinker Pro, and their ilk, each with even less functional gameplay than this. The game is the gag, and in an age where games get wished into existence only through sheer force of wallet, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the jokes have no punchline, but enough people are still paying a premium to see someone tell it anyway.

Surgeon Simulator: Anniversary Edition is now available on the Sony Entertainment Network Store for the PS4.

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Review: Ghost Giant Is Adorable in Small Doses but Clumsy with the Big Stuff

This VR title boasts an endearingly goofy premise, but it’s one that’s executed in bumpy fashion.

2.5

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Ghost Giant
Photo: Thunderful Games

In Ghost Giant, players take on the role of an enormous and comforting specter that’s been accidentally summoned by the tears of an 11-year-old kitten named Louis. Unfortunately, this spirit is as clumsy as the boy turned superhero from Shazam, and in trying to calm the understandably frightened cat down, almost ends up killing him. It’s an endearingly goofy premise, though one that’s executed in bumpy fashion by this VR title, as using the PlayStation Move controllers to lift and poke physical objects rarely goes as planned.

The game’s unwieldy control scheme should come as no surprise to those who’ve played previous titles from developer Zoink!, such as Flipping Death, in which players fumble around as a spirit possessing living creatures, and Stick It to the Man, where the human protagonist comes equipped with a wacky spaghetti-like third arm. But Ghost Giant also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an adorable, low-stakes exploration game or if it wants to be about capital-B big issues.

The game looks like Night in the Woods and plays a bit like Beyond: Two Souls but lacks the gravitas of either. Louis’s mom is suffering from severe depression, and Louis is rightfully terrified that if he can’t hide her ailment from the neighbors and cheer her up, she might be taken away. But that’s as far as the game goes in addressing mental illness; for the majority of the game, it’s just a puzzle to be overcome. Ghost Giant understands that not all problems can be solved by, say, baking Mom’s favorite apple pie and restoring her beloved cello, but it doesn’t respect us enough to acknowledge that most problems require hard work to resolve.

If Ghost Giant avoids similar issues of insincerity or exploitation with the other villagers in the game’s French-inspired Sancourt, it’s only because these characters lack any sort of interiority at all. They’re all plagued with low-stakes problems, all directly solved. A melancholy bird, for instance, isn’t depressed so much as it simply refuses to sing—that is, until its favorite hat is returned. And that bird’s owner doesn’t have some deep-seated issue preventing her from writing; she just misses the bird’s song. Satisfying these needs can be humorous, as when you—an actual but sadly invisible spirit—must create a bedsheet poltergeist that you can dangle in front of a ghost-hunting photographer. And some of the tasks make clever use of your size: After pulling wilted sunflowers out of the ground and reseeding a farm, you have to reach up and grab two clouds and squeeze them together to make it rain. What these literally odd jobs don’t provide is room for growth, either in the characters or in the gameplay.

That’s a shame, because it’s so obvious that more vivid, elaborate stories could have been told using these anthropomorphic denizens, like the goat landlord who’s desperate to catch some shut-eye, the avian scuba diver who dredges up trash, or the confidence-lacking lion who sets out to become a confectioner. These are well-designed characters, and they’re nicely voice-acted, which make it all the more frustrating that the player’s interactions with them are largely limited to single scenes, entirely within the context of puzzles. The same goes for the districts of this model-sized town, which don’t feel lived in so much as designed around cheap and often repetitive gimmicks, from using a magnet to fish through a creepy, cemetery-adjacent junkyard, to operating a crane in a sunny, seaside harbor.

Ghost Giant’s puzzles are as precise as the clockwork machinery around Sancourt that’s used to rotate and raise some of the varied buildings. Creative or brute-force solutions are restricted, as players are allowed only to manipulate copper objects (though you can carry and throw just about any loose inanimate object) and can only rotate around a fixed point. Why allow players to be a giant freaking ghost and give them the wider range of movement offered by VR if you’re just going to restrict that freedom? (I wish I could say this was an intentional manifestation of Louis’s mother’s depression.) There’s only one way to accomplish each task, so when players are asked to clear a bird out of a pedestrian’s path, you’ll have to lean in and physically blow on it, because nothing else is designed to frighten the bird. In another nonsensical situation, you’re required to paint a picture to get a crowd’s attention, as if slathering paint on these individuals wouldn’t make them move.

The game’s most enjoyable aspect is how you get to pull apart the walls and ceilings of miniature homes, so as to get a better look inside them. But it’s baffling that so few fixtures are detachable, and that they hold only meaningless, disparate collectibles like hats, insects, basketballs, and pinwheels. In the moment, you feel the thrill of spying on some hidden interior world, but then you’re just clumsily activating what are essentially animatronic displays. However impressive some of these dioramas and mechanisms may be on the surface, like so much of Giant Giant, they’re ultimately lifeless.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Thunderful Games.

Developer: Zoink! Publisher: Thunderful Games Platform: PSVR Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History

The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.

3.5

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Heaven's Vault
Photo: Inkle

Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.

In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.

Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.

If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.

The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.

But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.

The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.

Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.

Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Dangerous Driving Does the Bare Minimum to Earn Comparison to Burnout

Though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

1

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Dangerous Driving
Photo: Three Fields Entertainment

Because Dangerous Driving comes to us from the former Criterion Games co-founders who developed Burnout, it was natural to expect a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat experience. But while this ostensible spiritual successor to that long-dormant series can be effectively tense as you barrel down tracks at upwards of 200 m.p.h., crashing and taking down your AI rivals on the way to first place, it isn’t long before the game slips into cyclical repetition of its core gameplay loop. Dangerous Driving riffs on the Burnout formula in only superficial ways, and though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

Dangerous Driving features six car classes with about 10 races each. The monotony starts here. Each car, from souped-up formula cars to tuned coupes, handles the same way. Drifting in a sedan feels identical to drifting in an SUV. The bombastic, fiery end to a 200 m.p.h. sprint lacks exhilaration because the cars look like pristine, still-sealed Hot Wheels. The races also wear the same mask of familiarity. Of the 10 or so races per car class, the choices are identical, just in varying orders, and regardless of race type, the tracks are indistinguishable.

Worse, though, is the haphazard change in seasons during these races: One minute, players are speeding through autumnal vistas draped in oranges and reds, the next driving beside frozen fields blanketed in white and leafless trees. Yet somehow, the tracks remain unaffected by the changing seasons. The sudden, inexplicable season change would be forgivable if the scenery weren’t so excessively bright. Because the color contrast is so high (and no settings exist to adjust the game’s display), players will end up wrecking their cars more often than not because of the obnoxiously bright sun rays bouncing off the bright silver cars.

Dangerous Driving isn’t mechanically difficult to understand, but the AI makes the game impossible to enjoy. Rubberbanding exists in many racing games, but Three Fields Entertainment takes this frustrating feature to new and unfortunate heights with this game. The AI respawns immediately after crashing and appears right behind the player. Should players regain their position after falling behind or crashing, the AI will magically boost just five or so miles faster to maintain their lead. Your competitors turn corners perfectly, dodge oncoming traffic with ease, and maintain high speeds all while swerving through lanes. Unless players chain together boosts to get ahead, they’ll often find the computer AI no less than a car’s length behind. There’s no gratification in coming in first when players can never really pull far enough ahead and always fall annoyingly far behind.

The game, handicapped by stiff and imprecise controls and riddled with bugs, also lacks for the extras that might have allowed it to stand out from just about any other racing game. There’s an alt-rock song that plays during the menu screen, but no music to soundtrack your racing, though Dangerous Driving does allow for Spotify integration—that is, if you happen to have a premium membership. There’s no free race or time attack modes, no local split-screen, and the game has shipped without online functionality, a feature supposedly coming in the ensuing months. Which is to say that the folks at Three Fields Entertainment were only too eager to push a game into the marketplace without it possessing the bare minimum necessary to even allow it to sensibly be called a kindred spirit to Burnout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Three Fields Entertainment.

Developer: Three Fields Entertainment Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 9, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Misfires After a Provocative Start

It’s a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

3

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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain
Photo: D3 Publisher

The Earth Defense Force series specializes in spectacle and literally gargantuan tasks, putting players in the shoes of human soldiers trying to take down enormous alien invaders. Yuke’s Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain doesn’t stray from this over-the-top premise, but unlike its Sandlot-developed predecessors, which were primarily influenced by campy sci-fi flicks, this sequel injects the proceedings, at least for a time, with a biting wit that recalls that of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. This shift in tone is both unexpected and welcome, with the script at various points focusing on the economic struggles that result from war and taking aim at the media’s attempt to manipulate people’s emotions.

Iron Rain’s first mission brings to mind the start of prior games in the Earth Defense Force series, as you find yourself in the middle of a city as part of an infantry going toe to toe with humongous ants. The difference here is that, after the final threat has been taken down, your protagonist appears to be dead meat. It’s then that Iron Rain jumps forward in time and to your playable character waking up from a seven-year coma. Since you’re apparently okay, an official says, it’s time to get back to the battlefield, as the war against the alien invaders continues unabated on our planet’s streets. The insensitivity of this casual command from a superior announces the game’s intent to comment, both seriously and mischievously, on the consequences of the world being controlled by EDF, a military-based de facto government.

In terms of third-person shooting action, Iron Rain follows the lead of its predecessors, with the player, before each mission, choosing two main weapons from a wide variety of options: shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, laser blasters, and more, all with their own ammo capacities, reload times, and other features. Most missions task the player with simply destroying all enemies on the stage, but the earlier ones stave off repetition with an impressive range of scenarios. During one level, you might drive a nondescript pick-up truck, searching for giant machines to destroy. In another, you might don heavy armor to block countless projectiles as you attempt to dismantle all the legs of a humongous crab robot that unleashes waves of smaller foes via trapdoors in its appendages.

In its first half, Iron Rain regularly introduces new threats for you to terminate. This sequel distinguishes itself within the Earth Defense Force series with uniquely intimidating imagery, such as disgustingly gaseous beetles that sometimes crawl on their towering robotic allies. More significantly, the enemy AI has never been as dangerous in a Earth Defense Force game as it is here, even on normal difficulty. Single bugs will relentlessly assume flanking positions as you attempt to blast away other enemies who run straight at you, flying drones are peskier now that they can teleport, and larger foes require careful management of your evasive abilities, lest you run out of energy and open yourself up to a series of crushing attacks.

Between levels, Iron Rain outlines the numerous ways that EDF’s reign impacts life on the planet. After the player beats a mission, the game features a few lines of voiceover dialogue to flesh out its story. These skits are only accompanied by stock loading-screen imagery, in line with the series’s overall budget-game aesthetic. Despite the cheap feel of these segments, the game’s script often conveys a sophisticated sense of class awareness. At one point, a soldier reveals that he has a family who lives in an area that receives less protection from EDF, and that he needs to earn three more badges to move his loved ones to a safer location. In a later exchange, one soldier tells another that his energy core, an essential part of any fighter’s gear, is only 12 percent intact, but it will have to do since core replacements are deducted from a soldier’s salary. In such scenes, Iron Rain paints EDF as an institution that barely cares for the well-being of the very people tasked with saving humankind.

Other between-stage skits adopt a wryer tone as they go about illustrating the media’s role as manipulators. During one interlude, you hear the voice of Olivia, a radio personality who tries to hype up EDF soldiers with a sort of childish excitement—and as if she weren’t patronizing enough, Olivia also markets a brand of coffee. In some segments, you’ll listen to a reporter from the Universal News Network, and at one point the broadcaster announces that EDF has defeated a critical threat, which results in regular news programming being halted for four hours to celebrate the historical significance of EDF. Such bits satirize the media’s complicity in creating distractions from the harshest of realities, which is to say that Iron Rain marks the first time an Earth Defense Force game has struck an intellectual and ironic chord.

Regrettably, the storytelling and action begin to suffer to a significant degree at around the game’s halfway point. The dialogue between stages loses much of its sting, with characters sharing fewer remarks about working-class struggles. Inexplicably, Iron Rain sometimes features no spoken lines from characters after a mission is completed, raising the question of why it dedicated so much time to developing a critique of EDF through dialogue early on.

What hurts the game the most, however, isn’t the lack of follow through on its initial critical gumption, but rather a lack of compelling drama in its later levels. Missions that take place in caves not only dully recall multiple similar stages from Earth Defense Force 2017 but also require little strategy (just fire rockets into the recesses of the cave where bugs congregate and be on your way). Objectives that require you to protect certain targets fail to apply any distinct pressure on the player, as the targets are rarely in danger of destruction provided you continuously attack foes. And similar to select missions in Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, certain levels’ emphasis on a Godzilla-sized monster is anticlimactic and wishy-washy: In some instances, the monumental threat hightails it after you wipe out smaller adversaries. After a promising start, Iron Rain becomes a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

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

Developer: Yuke’s Publisher: D3 Publisher Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 11, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Yoshi’s Crafted World Turns the Mundane Into the Stuff of Dreams

To enjoy the game is to believe that there can be purpose or joy in peeking around the most distant corners of our world.

4

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Yoshi's Crafted World
Photo: Nintendo

In a gaming landscape that doesn’t lack for vast, sprawling epics, mercenary time-wasters, unspeakable horrors, and indomitable challenges requiring nothing short of spiritual discipline, there’s perhaps nothing more revolutionary than a game where you collect smiley-faced flowers across a world made out of discarded cereal boxes. Yoshi’s Crafted World is nothing short of a delight, and that’s because and not in spite of its ease and relative emptiness in terms of what it asks of the player. It’s a firm reminder of the value games can have beyond putting your skill to the test, or pushing you to only earn or collect countless stuff, exhibiting the value of a well-imagined game world that exists for its own sake.

Of course, the game is still built on a basic platformer framework. Bowser Jr. and Magikoopa leader Kamek sneak onto Yoshi’s island to try and steal the Sunstone, a wish-granting tablet made up of five Dream Gems. When this thievery causes the Sunstone to break, scattering all the gems across the island, Yoshi and his buds must trek across the island to grab them before Jr. and Kamek do. It’s standard fare, but playing a Nintendo platformer for the story is like listening to Taylor Swift for the insight into Bolshevik influence on modern socialist ideology. The “why” is a trifle in Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s the “how” and “where” that’s everything.

Yoshi’s solo platformers have always been an outlet for Nintendo to play with aesthetics, and this time, the series has gone the next logical step from the yarn-based Yoshi’s Woolly World into full-on DIY arts-and-crafts territory. It’s an aesthetic we’ve seen before in games, primarily from Media Molecule’s delightful Tearaway. The comparisons end there, though, and only mildly to the detriment of Yoshi’s Crafted World. There’s no opportunity to craft things that are used in the game and can be shared in real life. The game is simply a well-crafted romp through a wide assortment of worlds literally held together with glue, tape, and string.

Despite running off the Yoshi series’s same old game mechanics—running, jumping, eating enemies and making eggs out of them, throwing the eggs at other things—Yoshi’s Crafted World isn’t a platformer that’s about stopping the player from reaching their goals. It’s about the active, gentle encouragement of players to interact with and explore their environment. You never know what’s behind some bit of cardboard, what’s hiding in a papier-mâché house, or how the bits of trash you’re picking up will come together to make other things.

That last bit is truly the meat of this blissfully pure game. There’s no time limit on its stages, all effortlessly charming worlds awash in tiny, clever details, from train engines powered by soda cans, to stars and asteroids made out of aluminum foil, to all the little felt-covered creatures who wander around the place. Your sole duty is to see it all, peek behind every leaf or cardboard bush and collect what’s inside, which is hopefully one of the seven or eight Smiley Flowers hiding around. Anyone can get to the end of each individual stage, but the only way you can proceed into a brand new area on the overworld map is to find as many Smiley Flowers as you can. That means truly exploring your environment, which can be perilous, sometimes tricky, but rarely tense. You lose hearts when you get hit, but nothing in Yoshi’s Crafted World feels like it’s actively gunning for the player. Enemies are mostly there as a means for Yoshi to make more eggs; they’re a tool more than a hindrance. Even falling into a bottomless pit just means that you float back to the last checkpoint in the stage.

To enjoy Yoshi’s Crafted World is to believe that there can be joy in a long stroll, in being curious enough to peek around the most distant corners of our world. Aside from the occasional wacky boss fight, there’s not much more to the game than that, and doesn’t need to be. One of the greatest tests of that fact comes a few stages in, where Yoshi comes across a mother dog whose puppies hide in the stages you just beat. To find them, players enter “flip sides” of the stages, in which the perspective is reversed, meaning you see firsthand how every obstacle and background object is put together from the back.

It’s here, for a brief moment, that you marvel less at the objects themselves than the madcap imagination behind it all. These are joys that a great many games tend to obscure, for fear that the magic will be dispelled. But the light, breezy, and welcoming Yoshi’s Crafted World is all the more magical for showing us, confidently and unpretentiously, that even the mundane can turn into the stuff of dreams when laid out in the open by the most talented and careful hands.

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

Developer: Good-Feel Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: March 29, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Punishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Coasts on Borrowed Moves

Its boss fights highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty.

2

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Photo: Activision

After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtably talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted.

In a fictional 16th-century Japan, you play as the eponymous shinobi, who must rescue a young lord named Kuro from danger. There’s more at stake here than Sekiro’s loyalty as Kuro’s official bodyguard, as Kuro carries a bloodline that can grant immortality to those who can harness its power. Though this premise is more straightforward than the quest in Dark Souls, which refrains from giving the player an explicit direction or motivation, Sekiro still borrows ideas from that 2011 masterpiece, including, most significantly, the notion of restoring one’s health at a checkpoint in exchange for the resurrection of almost all defeated threats.

This double-edged mechanic feels more obligatory in Sekiro than it was in Dark Souls, as the player can fast travel to avoid repetitious combat or, in quintessential ninja style, silently destroy nearly every foe with various stealth tactics. Sekiro can also, under certain circumstances, come back to life on the spot immediately after being killed, further reducing the probability that players will be troubled by resurrected obstacles.

Sekiro’s shinobi protagonist knows a few melee tricks, but the game is best conquered by picking off guards one by one without being seen. Such killing can be satisfying in the moment, particularly when you feel as if you’re just blowing through a complex route without much issue. Right down to how the game’s grappling-hook tool allows the player to perch on top of gorgeous Japanese buildings to spot potential prey, Sekiro’s emphasis on sneaky, cold-blooded executions owes an obvious debt to Tenchu’s style and gameplay.

Yet Miyazaki and his team betray the point of following in the footsteps of a title like Tenchu when they also subscribe to the forgiving nature of modern stealth games. In Sekiro, you always know how aware a person or even an animal is of your presence, thanks to the tiny indicators hovering above them. On top of that, the hero is very quick, perhaps inspired in part by Snake’s over-the-top speed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Such factors translate to a reasonable amount of comfort for players, which distances the game from the uncompromising Tenchu. As long as you’re willing to be unrelenting in your approach—like fleeing a group of enemies after murdering one of them, hiding, and coming back to dispatch another poor bastard from behind—your adversaries will fall like dominoes, as they, unlike smarter AI opponents in other games, are prone to forgetting that you were in their space within a few seconds of your escape, sometimes even when you’re still within sight.

Sekiro’s draining boss fights not only seem to contradict the idea of the player feeling like a furtive ninja but also highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty. The recipe for success in these melee contests, which can initially appear unfair, tends to be similar to that of so many other violent skirmishes within Miyazaki’s catalogue: lock on, dodge (a lot), parry, and counter during openings. You do have to keep an eye on the hero’s posture bar to prevent bosses from completely piercing your defense, but you don’t have to worry about a stamina variable as in the Dark Souls series.

In the end, the game’s combat system lacks a truly innovative hook such as the Ki Pulse dynamic from 2017’s Nioh, the boomerang axe from 2018’s God of War, or the total dependence on defensive technique in last year’s Way of the Passive Fist. Even though Sekiro does sport a prosthetic arm that can be equipped with non-sword weapons, the items are hardly inventive: axe, spear, flamethrower, shuriken, and so on. There’s simply little in Sekiro to make it stand out in a vast ocean of releases, rendering it more of a footnote in the gaming market than the product of a distinguished auteur’s imagination.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by PMK•BNC.

Developer: FromSoftware Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 22, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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Games

With an Injection of Youngblood, the Wolfenstein Series Looks Fresher Than Ever

Did you get chocolate in my peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in my chocolate?

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Did you get chocolate in our peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in our chocolate? That’s the question on our mind looking at Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the upcoming collaboration between MachineGames (makers of the last two Wolfenstein games) and Arkane Studios (developers of the Prey and the Dishonored series). Though the newly released gameplay trailer looks every bit as gratuitous as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus—at one point, a Nazi’s head pops off like a pimple, accompanied by a hearty “Fuck yeah!”—the game also boasts a variety of first-time features for the franchise.

Beyond the new alternate-history setting—1980s Nazi-occupied Paris—the nonlinear structure allows players to tackle the game’s missions as they best see fit, light RPG elements provide options for deeper weapon modification and cosmetic upgrades, and a co-op campaign (whether with an AI companion or a friend) will yield potentially refreshing new ways to slaughter fascists. As MachineGames’s Game Director Jerk Gustafsson notes of the collaboration between studios, “Sharing [our] respective expertise has not only resulted in a truly great and completely new Wolfenstsein experience, but it has also brought our two studios closer together in a friendship that will be of tremendous value in our continuous efforts to craft beautiful, original, and fun video games.”

Not to bury the lede, but the feature that has us most intrigued is the “Buddy Pass” feature that’s included with the game’s deluxe edition. Essentially, if you’ve bought the game, your friends can download and play it with you for free, which is good, because there should be as few barriers to entry as possible when it comes to killin’ Nazis.

For a glimpse at the blood-drenched story, which involves BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters—the so-called “Terror Twins”—searching for their missing father, check out the trailer below:

Bethesda Softworks will release Wolfenstein: Youngblood on July 26.

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Games

There’s Nothing Shaky About the Launch of the Firmament Kickstarter

The launch trailer seeks to cover every angle of Cyan Inc.’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking.

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Firmament
Photo: Cyan Inc.

In the Kickstarter video that introduces us to Cyan Inc.’s newest venture, Firmament, a narrative adventure game built from the ground up for VR, the company’s long-time CEO, Rand Miller, notes that they “don’t just build games, but build worlds.” That’s a lofty proclamation that nonetheless feels accurate, based on Cyan’s 25-year-plus development work, from Myst and Riven to their previous Kickstarter-funded project, Obduction.

That experience shows in Firmament’s launch trailer, which seeks to cover every angle of the company’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking. A small proof-of-concept segment shows how the game will appear both in VR and on flat screens, and though it focuses largely on a wintry setting, also shows off concepts for a variety of other worlds. So far as such Kickstarter ventures go in gauging audience interest, in under a day, Cyan’s already raised more than 20% of its $1,285,000 goal.

Perhaps that crowdfunding is due to the apparent trustworthiness of Cyan (given their previous two successful Kickstarter projects). Or, as we’d like to wildly speculate, maybe there’s some cross-genre intrigue, given that the mysterious little puzzle-solving device/companion at the heart of Firmament looks a bit like a Ghost from Destiny. More factually, Firmament’s worldbuilding looks engagingly complex and the brief story trailer sounds suitably dramatic, with three-time Emmy Award-winning sound designer Russell Brower (from World of Warcraft) serving as lead composer.

To hear and see the magical-steampunk aesthetic of Firmament in action, and to get a cryptic taste of its puzzles and storyline, check out the teaser below.

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Games

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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Games

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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