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Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One X

The Xbox One X is an impressive piece of hardware, and it takes care of a big chip on Microsoft’s shoulder.

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Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One X
Photo: Microsoft

The future is sitting on my shelf right now. This premium console, sporting a highly advanced processor, can play games from across three generations of consoles. It also includes a drive for a brand new home-media disc format for watching movies and playing games at a higher resolution than we’ve ever seen. Yes, the PlayStation 3 was a special system all right, but it was one that was fraught with risk factors—from its exorbitant price to its betting the farm on A/V standards that only a fraction of its audience has adopted yet—and it’s bizarre to watch Microsoft attempt all those same gambles in 2017 with the Xbox One X, considering how it turned out for Sony in 2006.

Sony foisted the PS3’s Blu-ray player on a marketplace that only just started figuring out what high-definition even was. Meanwhile, in 2017, 4K TVs are commonplace and far more cheaper than HDTVs were in 2006, and the infant 4K UHD Blu-ray format has far more stunning demo-disc material for the One X to show off than the Blu-ray format did in its nascent years.

The PS3 was released with a weak slate of launch titles, and for those jumping on the Xbox bandwagon for the first time, the One X has an instant library of hundreds of titles that, if not exclusive to the system, are in their best possible form on it. And perhaps most important is the fact that the PS3’s Cell processor was a labyrinthine mess to program on, notoriously causing several high-profile titles to run worse than their Xbox 360 counterparts. The One X is more like a high-end PC, which is the exact factor that made the 360 the system of choice for many developers in the previous console generation, leading to the best versions of some of its most beloved games.

That’s the main hook here for players and developers, and to answer the $64,000 question: Yes, the One X certainly does exactly what Microsoft has been touting in soft, reverent, and Manhattan Project-like tones the last few years. Whether a developer decides to put out a dedicated One X-dedicated patch or not, the extra horsepower—in layman terms, 1.5 times what the PlayStation 4 Pro is capable of—pushes console games far above and beyond what they’ve been capable of for most of this generation, which could mean anything from upscaling to 4K resolution, to higher framerates, to faster load times. Even if the change is subtle, there’s absolutely no doubt that the One X makes a noticeable and welcome difference to its entire library.

At bare minimum, the One X can give a game some extra quality-of-life boosts. Pretty much every title benefits from being upscaled to 4K if it wasn’t operating around that resolution before, with some games, like ReCore and Mass Effect, getting a nice upgrade in sharpness and clarity if nothing else. Elsewhere, the recently released Cuphead doesn’t gain anything visually, but the game suffered from some long load times when leaving a boss area to return to the overworld map, and those load times, sometimes up to a minute, have now been cut by at least half. Games like Bayonetta, Rage, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Red Dead Redemption, which were absolute miracles on the technical level already, see similar improvements, with known problem areas (Bayonetta’s Climax attacks, Rage’s buggy races, Revengeance’s Blade Mode attacks, Red Dead Redemption’s weather changes) ironed out nicely, even beyond the minor boost provided by the One S.

The benefits of the extra power feel more impressive unleashed on games with unlocked framerates, or where performance was tied to the GPU/CPU limits of the prior Xbox systems. A prime example is Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, a baffling remaster that should’ve been a total home run on current-gen hardware, and yet suffered from wildly variable framerates, load times, and freezing, even on the PS4 Pro with its Boost Mode enabled. Busy areas still show some minor hitches, but by and large, the game hits a perfect 60fps on the One X far more consistently—and as it does on the PC—than on any other console. The same goes for Assassin’s Creed: Rogue and Grand Theft Auto IV, two games that have never played well on the 360 but are far more likely to reach for the 60fps promised land on the One X.

The most blessed improvement in that regard is the original Dark Souls, which was capped at 30fps but was so poorly optimized for consoles that even more than one enemy in an area could completely make the game into a slideshow, let alone the first appearances of a screen-filling dragon, or long-standing performance disasters like Blighttown. The worst-playing areas appear to be resolved, making the game, at long last, playable on consoles. The console doesn’t fix every problem in every game—Ninja Gaiden Black’s load times are still awful; Halo: Reach’s framerate is stable now, even if, visually, the game is still a blurry mess overall—but it’s definitely pushing these games in ways console players have only dreamed of for years now.

These, however, aren’t the experiences the One X is charging that premium price for. What the system is made to deliver are the full-on high-octane performance upgrades that supposedly leave the PlayStation 4 in the dirt. And yes, there are a few of them already. As far as Xbox exclusives are concerned, Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4 are the golden children in this regard. Both were already highly impressive titles on the base hardware, but Halo 5’s upgrade makes a plethora of tiny new details and textures crystal clear. Look closely enough and you can see everything written on the tiny light-up display on every gun, the clear, inviting reflections of the environment in a puddle of water, debris falling all the way to the ground off of a giant robot floating hundreds of feet in the air. With Gears of War 4, while the improvements in textures offer a nice improvement over the original game on Xbox One S, the game can also be played at 60fps, making the oftentimes clunky firefights feel seamlessly frantic.

Quantum Break is a stellar but glitchy game that often appeared Vaseline-smeared, a problem it no longer has as a result of this system’s Enhancement patch. Rise of the Tomb Raider on the Xbox One was totally outclassed by a fantastic PS4 port last year, which is now, in turn, outclassed by a new patch on the One X that raises the resolution to a full 4K in its Enhanced Visuals mode. Xbox ports that seemed underwhelming in one aspect or another compared to the PS4 versions—Final Fantasy XV, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Assassin’s Creed: Unity—are now rendered superior on the One X. Out of the more recent titles tested on the machine, the biggest night-and-day difference is with Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a game that had a solid but unremarkable visual presentation on PS4 Pro that now almost looks like a completely new jaw-dropping beauty of a game on the One X. This is now, undoubtedly, the most powerful home for console games.

So why, then, does the One X still feel like an uncertain gamble? It’s an impressive piece of hardware, and it takes care of that big chip on Microsoft’s shoulder: the Xbox One being technically inferior to the PS4. This, though, was only a small factor in why the Xbox One has fallen in esteem. Microsoft should know that, because being weaker than the PS3 didn’t stop the 360 from being a success. The 360 was Microsoft’s greatest triumph because it had games that the PS3 didn’t, and the developer wasn’t stingy about putting the experiences that those games had to offer front and center. Although the One X will have no problem presenting the best versions of cross-platform games, it’s a system that still doesn’t feel like it has an identity beyond its massive horsepower. There’s no tonal, prestige equivalent on the platform as inseparable from the Xbox One as The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn, Infamous, and God of War are from the PS4, or Super Mario Odyssey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Arms, or Splatoon 2 are from the Nintendo Switch, games that scream “This is the kind of experience you can only get here.”

The defining Xbox One games right now are still Halo 5 and Gears of War 4, two polished military shooters that don’t distinguish themselves very well against every other sci-fi military shooter in existence. Microsoft’s most recent attempt at a mascot platformer, Super Lucky’s Tale, is a very sweet, good-hearted family game that has the terrible misfortune of being culturally eclipsed by the most innovative Super Mario title in decades. Exclusive indie titles of the kind Microsoft used to be known for are almost all exclusively on Sony’s platform. The Xbox One’s best true exclusive—the enormously fun and irreverent Sunset Overdrive—has already gone down in gaming history as a cult title, and there are, as of the time of this writing, no plans to give it the One X Enhancement patch that would rightfully thrust it back into the spotlight to find the audience it deserves. The bulk of the best titles on the One X are mostly 360 and original Xbox games given new leases on life via the system’s admittedly miraculous backward-compatibility functions.

At $500, the One X is priced to exclude. Already-converted Xbox fans and gamers thirsty for high-quality 4K content will certainly find their faith in Microsoft rewarded, and can beam with pride at the technological superiority on display here. However, that price tag is a tall order for a system that has yet to push the envelope creatively in addition to visually, something its competition has been doing all year while “the most powerful console ever” has been in gestation. It’s worth looking back to 2006, however, when Sony was where Microsoft is now, with a powerful console, creatively lagging behind the 360 and the Nintendo Wii. They did the only thing they could do, which was march forward, and bring the best games imaginable to the system. What it could not bring, Sony made themselves. The result was that some of the best games of that generation didn’t start hitting the PS3 until the system had been out for 3+ years. The One X represents the best, freshest start Microsoft could’ve ever given themselves. They’ve shown what the technology can do for their past. How successful the system truly is depends on what they have planned for its future.

The Xbox One X is now available from Microsoft.

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Review: Spelunky 2 Spit-Polishes a Familiar Formula to Near-Perfection

Spelunky 2 remains staunchly committed to its immaculate core design.

4

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Spelunky 2

Right down to the start menu, Spelunky’s modus operandi has changed little for its long-awaited sequel. Once more, you take your whip, bombs, and ropes for a precarious two-dimensional descent through pits littered with cartoon critters. Again, white text proclaims, “The walls are shifting,” before the start of each completion attempt—that the levels are randomized and re-rerandomized each time you die. And you will die a lot.

The first world’s brown and rocky caveman dwelling, though populated by a few new enemies and obstacles, is reminiscent of the original’s opening mines. Still, you will spot tweaks to the familiar Spelunky formula early on. They seem small at first, like how the end of the first world presents a choice to enter either a jungle or a volcano, letting you pick the next set of obstacles that will probably kill you. Creatures like wild turkeys roam certain levels, able to be ridden and then lost (or abandoned) in times of distress like a Yoshi from Super Mario World.

The design of Spelunky 2 is so tightly wound and meticulously considered, though, that what seem like small tweaks and additions have wide, reverberating effects on the way the game plays. Nothing is immune to the environment and the objects within it, with bombs disastrously bounced away by punching-bag traps or pebbles you’ve tossed in the air coming back down to hit you in the face and stun you if you’re not careful. Trigger the giant drill at your own peril, because in the process of carving out a shortcut it might burrow down through pools of flowing lava, the domain of the volatile shopkeeper, or the bloody altar to a fickle god.

The turkeys, for one, provide a boost to mobility with a double-jump and a glide, though their headbutt differs just enough from your whip to be a liability until you get used to it. The turkeys can be carried up latters, and they can shield you from damage as long as they’re alive, giving out a health item when they’re blown up or otherwise set ablaze at the cost of losing the carcass as a throwable object to hit enemies or trigger traps. You can also give away the birds to a man in exchange for treasure, but take care not to blow up his pen, steal his turkeys, or kill the birds when he’s nearby if you don’t want to run afoul of his itchy trigger finger.

And while these tweaks hugely affect the game on a moment-to-moment basis, the larger structure of Spelunky remains intact here. Secret areas are abundant, and there are still unlockable shortcuts, but Spelunky 2’s similarity to its predecessor now functions as a sort of rebuttal to the various games that have followed the original’s procedurally generated permadeath lead over the last eight years. Where those other games lay breadcrumbs of progress to soften the impact of repeated failure and ensure every attempt feels meaningful, Spelunky 2 still rewards you only with scant knowledge through lessons learned the hard way. You don’t accumulate gold to upgrade your ropes or your whip or your jump height, and though you can unlock new characters, none of them play any differently.

Spelunky 2 remains staunchly committed to its immaculate core design, demanding that we adapt to its rhythms and its secrets. In this way, the game argues for the importance of that finely tuned core over the adornments of incremental progress, the various carrots on various sticks that inundate the entire medium. Such a firm declaration feels appropriate for a game whose very existence began with skepticism, where we questioned the point of more Spelunky when the original, after all, was polished to a mirror shine. Spelunky 2 may only change the size and shape of that mirror in subtle ways, but the things it allows us to glimpse about perseverance and tight, considered design are perhaps more vital than ever before.

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

Developer: Mossmouth, Blitworks Publisher: Mossmouth Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 15, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Crude Humor Buy: Game

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Review: Marvel’s Avengers Forces You to Run the Games-As-a-Service Hamster Wheel

Everything truly good in Marvel’s Avengers is compromised by its mercenary feature set.

2

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Marvel’s Avengers
Photo: Square Enix

With Marvel’s Avengers, Crystal Dynamics has managed to do what many reviews, screeds from established film directors, and anti-mainstream voices couldn’t: They’ve made me question my devotion to the titular superheroes. Namely, whether there really is nothing more to the latter-day iteration of the Avengers than fighting robots in between spouting Whedonesque dialogue. But, then, all it took was an afternoon of revisiting how they’ve been portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic books, and beyond across the last decade or so to see that Marvel’s Avengers alone does a disservice to the legacy of its superhero characters by making it seem as if they’re saving the world with empty promise.

While the characters here largely take their visual cues and personalities from their portrayals in the MCU, you won’t know them from their faces, voices, and histories. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t do the legwork of endearing them to us. And because they feel like strangers, it’s impossible to buy into the way they’re put at odds with one another after Captain America meets his demise and S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers are blamed for the cosmic explosion that killed him, as well as the mutations that occurred in many of those who were in the blast’s range. Much of the game involves trying to put the band back together to stop the evil A.I.M. corporation from capitalizing on the world’s new state of chaos.

The bones of a good, old-fashioned, linear action game are evident here. Brawling is a straightforward affair, with each Avenger’s special powers mapped to the shoulder buttons. Traversal feels right, with every superhero having their own snazzy method of getting around, from swinging on wires to clinging to and bouncing off walls; characters like Iron Man and Thor can even fly around the battlefield at will. Pity, then, that the battlefields often get too chaotic for their own good, choked with explosions, lasers, and exploding machine parts. The camera is sometimes a source of struggle. Level designs are bland, generic industrial wastelands surrounded by empty wilderness, and many of your objectives for each level have no sense of urgency. Worst of all, the game’s obscenely long load times make retrying a stage feel extra aggravating.

Crafting a sturdy Avengers beat ‘em up, a modern-day spiritual successor to the classic Captain America and the Avengers arcade game from the early ‘90s, is a noble aim. Which is to say, the aforementioned flaws aren’t a deal breaker, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t make its stages feel vital to its story, nor does it deliver truly memorable high-stakes surprises or introduce creative or well-known foes into the mix. Had it delivered on all those fronts, the game wouldn’t have been too far removed from the breezy, top-down action titles in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series. And if Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t, it’s because it’s too beholden, a la Destiny, to a live-service model—more interested in ensnaring than entertaining the player.

The core gameplay mechanic of Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t hinge on making players feel the exhilaration of saving the world, but on the allure of amassing stuff. The only real way to proceed in the game is by constantly collecting more and better gear for each character, upgrading their stats, and adding to a preposterous list of currencies, resources, and random junk that you need to, yes, keep upgrading. And all of that is worse here than it is in Destiny, because at least the new items that you collect in that game can change the parts of a character’s costume or the way a weapon fires; even a basic mission nets quite a bit in rewards. By contrast, none of the gear you collect in Marvel’s Avengers even changes the way a character looks. The only way to do that is to grind through stages and complete a character’s challenge card, and if you rightfully start to feel the snail’s pace of your progress, you can always just buy the cosmetics with real world money.

When the game, on its normal difficulty, starts to ramp up to the point where three hits from an enemy decimates your lifebar, there are no patterns to learn or strategies to change. What you feel instead of determination is the urgency of having to find another mission to take on and grind for better numbers, and the motivations aren’t strong enough to justify repetitive tasks for paltry rewards. Yes, there’s the base gratification of watching those numbers tick up, but with little else going on between its ears, Marvel’s Avengers feels creatively bankrupt. And while this sort of monotonous grinding typically makes it easy to just loathe and ignore a game, there’s collateral damage involved in completely writing this one off: Kamala Khan.

Kamala is already one of the best things to happen to Marvel Comics just by being who she is: a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim female superhero whose ethnicity, culture, and religion aren’t played to inspire controversy or feed into easy stereotypes. And even then, those aspects aren’t the whole of who she is. At least, all those things don’t outweigh the fact that she’s also just a dorky superhero stan living out her wildest dreams after she gets super powers. Somehow, despite all the despicable trappings of games as a service, everything special about her in the comics has made it into this game. She’s the star here, the one who decides to bring the Avengers together again, who wrestles with the implications of what to do with her power. She believes, without question, that she has to use it to face down the various injustices around her. As opposed to almost every other major hero in the game, she doesn’t lack for nuance. The game makes room for a moment in which she implements a burkini into her superhero outfit, as well as foregrounds her pride in knowing that she belongs with the Avengers, while also not ignoring that she’s still a kid who makes huge tactical mistakes.

Kamala is this game’s heart and soul, joyfully written and lovingly and enthusiastically performed by Sandra Saad. Much of the story centers on her presence and actions, and even as a playable character, her polymorph powers are by far the most blissfully fun mechanics in the game. As such, it’s easy to imagine what Marvel’s Avengers could’ve been completely about: the focused, straightforward story of a girl coming to grips with who she is, what she’s capable of, and where she fits among Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as she defies an evil corporation who wants people who look and act like her dead. That story is there in Marvel’s Avengers, but unfortunately it’s one that’s swept aside often and awkwardly by wheel-spinning missions that exist only to teach players how to run that import-free, gear-garnering games-as-a-service hamster wheel of missions, never reaching a place where your job is ever done. And the fact that players must suffer that to experience one of the best crafted characters in gaming this year makes Marvel’s Avengers all the more infuriating.

There’s an oft-repeated mantra in Marvel’s Avengers that goes, “Good isn’t a thing you are; it’s a thing you do.” And it’s one that’s recited in a game where doing good largely means “smash more robots” and “open more glowy chests.” Everything truly good in Marvel’s Avengers is compromised by its mercenary feature set. Live-service engagement is ultimately its guiding principle, and that’s a principle that’s never been heroic.

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

Developer: Crystal Dynamics Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Mild Blood, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: No Straight Roads Is Richly in Tune with Its Personal Themes

You never lose sight of No Straight Roads’s thematic intent during its big show-stopping numbers.

3.5

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No Straight Roads
Photo: Sold Out

In the world of No Straight Roads, music is the electricity-generating energy that powers Vinyl City. So when the rock duo of Bunk Bed Junction rebels against the EDM-obsessed NSR corporation that runs the city, they’re not just fighting the Man, but also rising up on behalf of those living in the city’s poorer districts, which suffer from rolling blackouts whenever there isn’t enough music to go around. It’s a smart way to keep the game’s six gloriously absurd band battles grounded in political stakes and interpersonal relationships, much as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World used music to illustrate the ups and downs of love.

Despite what its title might suggest, progression through the game is straightforward. Bunk Bed Junction targets the lead NSR performer of the district closest to them, hijacks their performance by fighting and platforming through a series of security checkpoints, and then duels the artist in a multi-phase boss battle. Recalling the way that Psychonauts and Persona 5 built unique worlds around their characters, these showdowns are the game’s highlight, with each (literal) stage serving as a visual metaphor for the type of music or performer involved. These battles are also puzzles as much as fights, as you can’t just randomly swing Mayday’s guitar or thrash about with Zuke’s drumsticks. Rather, players must learn to follow a level’s underlying beat so as to dodge and parry attacks, swapping between the band’s two members as necessary and using the elements of each arena to expose a boss’s weakness.

Put simply, the creativity of the concerts in No Straight Roads are consistently cranked to 11. With the exception of the game’s two optional rap battles against Zuke’s brother, DK West, that have their own separate control scheme, no two performances are the same. In fact, even the phases of each boss fight tend to be radically different. When players first encounter DJ Subatomic Supernova, they’re merely running around his dais, smashing disco balls to gain the musical notes that serve as the band’s ranged ammunition. By the end of the battle, the scope has expanded considerably, as the disco balls are now planets that orbit a massive, sun-like DJ, and players must find a way to pierce the asteroid belt that protects him. The fight against Yinu, a neoclassical nine-year-old piano prodigy, starts out simply enough, with you needing to learn the hard way to differentiate between full- and half-note attacks by the speed at which the projectiles fly in your direction. At the battle’s crescendo, Yinu’s angry mother has gotten involved, doing her best to crush you with piano hammers.

You never lose sight of No Straight Roads’s thematic intent during its big show-stopping numbers. But the brief interludes in between, where players can freely explore the district of the boss they’ve just beaten, also speak to the game’s larger themes. You can see how music influences not only the citizens of Vinyl City, but the architecture: Sayu, a digital mermaid idol modeled to some extent after Hatsune Miku, comes from a Japanese-themed area called Akusuka, whereas the robotic boyband Ten Ten hails from the harsher, steelier Metro District.

No Straight Roads also benefits from not dwelling too much on its rock-versus-EDM premise, by and large using it to compellingly shade its artist characters. Eve, a so-called “psydub” performer, uses her powers to physically split up Mayday and Zuke for most of their battle with her, which is a neat way of reflecting not only her own feelings of rejection—she once worked alongside Zuke—but to demonstrate the teamwork that a successful band needs to master. There’s not a missed beat, so to speak, in the way Eve’s surrealism also tries to make a statement against Mayday’s so-called “pedestrianism,” with the game ultimately declaring that all perspectives, no matter how plain, have their own appeal.

The game’s exuberance helps to smooth over its rough spots, like the awkward parrying mechanics, imprecise hit boxes, and messy camera angles that come as a result of being unable to lock onto enemies. That’s because No Straight Roads stays true, above all, to its themes. Take, for instance, the rap battles between DK West and his brother Zuke: Only the first one is truly catchy and verbally dexterous, but the others get tripped up in all the right way, with the brothers fumbling over words not because of a lack of skill but because of a surfeit of emotion. Even the occasional wrong note in No Straight Roads works, as it’s in service to an earnest and resonant grand design, or as the game might put it: BUNKA, JUNKA, SHAKALAKA BAM.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Wonacott Communications.

Developer: Metronomik Publisher: Sold Out Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 25, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time Wields the Dullest of Blades

The game lacks for Samurai Jack’s smooth, stylish animation and deceptively deep characterizations.

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Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time
Photo: Adult Swim Games

Genndy Tartakovsky’s television series Samurai Jack remains memorable for its smooth, stylish animation and its deceptively deep characterization of its titular samurai, who’s transported into an unrecognizable future that no longer has a place for him, and where his magical foe, Aku, reigns supreme. Evincing little of that style and depth, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time’s story plays out in a 50-second window to time from Samurai Jack’s series finale that occurred off screen, stretched out here to a five-to-six hour experience in which Jack finds himself unstuck in time and reliving his past. The game’s 3D art style inevitably loses the comic book-like screen framing of Samurai Jack, but worse is that playing Battle Through Time feels like you’re watching a clip-show-like reprisal of the series.

To its credit, Battle Through Time nicely mines Tartakovsky’s source material in its efforts to at least be an entertaining brawler. The enemies—doddering robotic alligators, sleek metal fish demons, agile and leonine bounty hunters—are as comical yet deadly as they are on the show. Jack’s prowess in combat is also neatly summed up by the variety of tools at his disposal. That includes everything from shurikens and bows to machine guns, plus five different classes of melee weapons: trusty swords, fast fists, horde-clearing hammers, distance-closing spears, and powerful clubs. Even the game’s genre-standard skill tree stands out for the way it reflects Jack’s growth on the series, with separate branches for his Combat, Physical, and Spiritual levels, and the in-game shop where he can purchase skill upgrades allows for a good cameo from Da Samurai. None of this is particularly innovative for the genre, but it at least solidifies Battle Through Time as a flattering, form-fitting adaptation of the show.

Nonetheless, the game’s combat is cluttered. Each type of enemy is weak to one of Jack’s weapons, but because he can only equip up to four different items at once, the fluid fights are broken up by constant trips to the pause menu, where players must swap out their gear. Along the same lines, the game introduces a durability meter to all weapons (save for Jack’s Magical Sword and his fists) that requires players to frequently change armaments. Ostensibly, this exists to make players experiment with all the various hammers, spears, and clubs at their disposal, but given that you can just stockpile identical versions of the same weapon, the majority of items that Jack acquires by disarming—or in the case of Beetle Drones, dis-legging—his opponents come to feel as if they exist only for their cosmetic appeal.

Instead of following in the footsteps of a classic like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, which thrusts its familiar animated characters into bizarre new worlds that could hold up on their own, Battle Through Time chooses to instead recreate specific, random episodes from the series, and in contextless ways. There’s a dog who flies around in a spaceship, wears a monocle, and offers you helpful advice, but if you haven’t watched the show, you wouldn’t know this to be Sir Rothchild, a canine archeologist. You’ll encounter a kilted warrior, as well as his warrior daughters, but the game never gets around to explaining that he’s the Scotsman, Jack’s most trusted ally on Samurai Jack. Boon’s Castle was where Jack met the Scotsman’s wife on the series, and the Cave of the Ancients was where he saw his potential fate reflected in that of a long-suffering Viking warrior, but those locals don’t feel purposeful in the game, as they exist here only to provide differing backdrops for otherwise identical fight sequences.

The ability to walk a mile in Samurai Jack’s sandals simply isn’t worth the cost, given Battle Through Time’s clunky 3D rendering of Tartakovsky’s distinctive visuals, its empty retelling of individual episodes from the series, and repetitive boss fights, especially the one against Demongo, one of Aku’s strongest minions. All of which is to say that players would be better off firing up their Hulu apps if they want to get a sense of Samurai Jack’s breadth and wonder.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Sandbox Strategies.

Developer: Soleil Ltd. Publisher: Adult Swim Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 21, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood Buy: Game

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Review: To Survive in Windbound Is to Conquer a Grueling Progression System

Windbound is an exploration game whose sense of exploration is painfully rigid.

2.5

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Windbound
Photo: Deep Silver

As a warrior separated from her seafaring tribe in Windbound, you’ll have to scavenge small islands for food and craft materials in order to build a boat. The early hours of other such survival games tend to be the most thrilling because that’s when players are at their most desperate and vulnerable. Not only do you have few materials to fall back on should disaster strike, but you’re often still learning the game’s mechanics, from what to craft to what materials to look out for, and what can kill you in a moment’s notice. Windbound, however, is different insofar as its early and middle hours are an absolute chore, suffering from a mind-numbing lack of variety that’s only rectified once the game is nearly over.

At the start of Windbound, you must build and paddle a small canoe, but as the game progresses, you construct decks and sails to more smoothly and confidently navigate the waters to distant islands with more resources available to you. Unlike the wider worlds of so many other survival games, the procedurally generated space of Windbound is consciously limited, requiring players to find three towers housing nautilus keys before they can proceed to the game’s next chapter, which has a new chain of islands to explore.

The decision to segment Windbound into discrete chapters isn’t ruinous on its own; the game only spirals into tedium through the slow drip feed of new areas, items, and enemies on a per-chapter basis. The first chapter has only one island type, all with the same handful of resources, like sticks and tufts of grass to cobble together a canoe and a flimsy sail. The second chapter, while carrying over the plain landmasses from the first, introduces islands marked by red-leafed trees that house the first hostile animal that you’ll encounter (the wild boar in the first chapter don’t attack unprovoked) as well as bamboo, which is sturdier and offers crafting options for more elaborate vessels. Only after three more keys will you find the next type of island and the crafting recipes that go with their new resources.

Windbound is, in other words, an exploration game whose sense of exploration is painfully rigid, one that sabotages its own sense of discovery by so insistently waiting until you have earned the next mechanic. By the time you reach the fourth and fifth chapters (out of five total), the game’s ocean presents a much wider range of possibilities for fortune and ruin. In many ways this is a clumsy, glitchy game, saddled with an awkward crafting menu and controls for sailing and combat that lack any particular sense of impact or intention. But in those late hours, Windbound finally delivers the sense of wonder and adventure inherent to its seafaring premise, even without the early-game sense of just skirting disaster. Until that point, though, you repeat the same menial tasks among locales that soon grow maddeningly familiar.

Worst of all, the game, on its default difficulty, kicks you back to the first chapter once you die, leaving you with a few of your items but otherwise forcing you to work your way back up again past those same few islands with their same few materials and animals. The ensuing repetition is far more punishing than if the game had simply thrown you into the deep end from the very beginning. In most games that make you start over after you die, you use knowledge of past runs to move forward more quickly. But in Windbound, such experience is useless because the game doesn’t give you the right materials to do so before you’ve jumped through its prescribed number of hoops by gathering keys from islands you’ve seen again and again and again.

Even so, it’s difficult to shake the specter of the better game that Windbound might have been. There’s a real splendor to the game’s open ocean, a joy to navigating its waters with a vessel that you’ve constructed as well as a captivating stress when you realize just how flimsy that vessel can be. In these moments, even issues like the horrid progression melt away. But those moments don’t arrive often enough, and they tend to arrive far too late.

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

Developer: 5 Lives Studios Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 28, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Is More Like the Ultimate Pain

Even when Fall Guys is working perfectly as intended, its appeal is limited.

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Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Photo: Devolver Digital

Cuteness isn’t in short supply across Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, from the customizable Minions-like blob you control to the wacky games that will have you dodging giant pieces of falling fruit or running through spinning windmills like a ball on a mini-golf course. This is an unmistakably fast and frenetic battle royale, but one in which actual fighting isn’t really an option: Your tackle has all the force of a pillow, and your grab is effective only at momentarily slowing both yourself and an opponent. Your goal? To outrun or outlast your 59 adorable foes over a series of various elimination stages, and should the opportunity arise to gently push a rival off a ledge, you’ll want to take it.

No amount of cuteness, though, is a proper substitute for competent design. The majority of the game’s 24 challenges are more a matter of luck than skill, with players often forced to fling themselves into plushy and disastrous pile-ups of their peers, hoping that they’ll be able to funnel through an obstacle just fast enough to break away from the pack. As for those unfortunate enough to stay mired in a mob of competitors, good luck catching up with the rest of the field. It’s already hard enough to land a tricky series of jumps given the game’s imprecise physics, let alone to do so when players keep colliding with you in mid-air.

Other minigame-filled titles like Mario Party and WarioWare are memorable for their diversity—how each activity throws something distinct, unpredictable, and truly competitive at players. By contrast, Fall Guys generally just throws other players at you. The contestants are the only variable that really changes. The races themselves feel all too similar, especially once you’ve done them a few times and have learned the fastest routes, and survival challenges are just a series of repetitive actions in which you wait for an often-unseen opponent to mess up first. The game rarely encourages you or gives you the time to appreciate all of the anonymous strangers getting knocked off a course by a foam hammer. You’re too busy ignoring them, after all, trying to avoid the same fate. As a result, courses that are designed to fit 60 players end up feeling under-populated and empty when it’s just you ahead of the pack.

The game also suffers from major balancing issues, and not just in terms of how difficult it is to walk and jump across narrow cylindrical beams in “Slime Climb.” For one, Fall Guys presents itself as a player-versus-player action game, but nearly a third of the challenges it offers are team-based. If you were playing with actual friends, it might be fun to strategize how to best (and most ridiculously) gather eggs from a central area and horde them in your team’s zone, striving to have more eggs than the other teams after two minutes. But you can’t communicate with your randomly assigned partners, so you just have to hope that they’re not actively trying to troll you, as when, in a game of “Team Tail Tag,” your allies keep trying to grab your tail instead of protecting you, or when a game of “Fall Ball” gets nasty, with teammates actively trying to score own goals with the oversized soccer ball. And nothing has been built into the game to discourage such behavior, as there are no leaderboards, no rankings, no low-priority pool, only an endless grind for trivial cosmetic loot. Nothing disincentivizes players from choosing to find their fun at your expense.

Even when Fall Guys is working perfectly as intended—no server issues, quick matchmaking, good teammates, balanced levels—its appeal is limited. If you’re doing well, you’re likely to find yourself racing well ahead of the pack, unimpeded by competitors, in which case you’re essentially just playing the same brief level over and over again, grinding out loot. And when you’re doing poorly, you at least have to contend with others’ unpredictable antics. It’s here that the game feels like it might have a point, however accidental, because losing at Fall Guys feels like democracy in action: You can see exactly where you need to go, but you’re trapped in place by the dozens of obstinate others who maddeningly insist on doing things their own way.

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

Developer: Mediatonic Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 3, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Destroy All Humans! Is Dated and Prescient in Equal Measure

To say that the game feels like a relic from a different age would be an understatement.

3.5

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Destory All Humans!
Photo: THQ Nordic

To say that Destroy All Humans! feels like a relic from a different age would be an understatement. The original 2005 game, goosed up by Black Forest Games for current-gen consoles, is a snapshot of gaming on the cusp, back when wild ideas and great writing could live in a sort of digital middle class right alongside big-budget blockbuster titles, and feel right at home. From its approach to problem solving and to its unabashed politics, there’s an anarchic streak running through it. That it stood out less in 2005 is somewhat damning given where we are now, but this remaster’s upgraded visuals, controls, and mechanics have made everything special about the original release shine much brighter.

Set in 1959, the game begins with a UFO crash-landing on Earth, leaving its pilot, Cryptosporidium-136—Crypto for short—in the grubby hands of a government agency known as Majestic. Soon after, Crypto’s clone, 137, and their boss, Orthopox-13 (Richard Horvitz, again bringing his uproarious Invader Zim voice out to play), sends their mother ship to Earth for some extraterrestrial vengeance. And by vengeance, they mean anal probes. For everyone.

In a nutshell, Destroy All Humans! suggests a ‘50s-era alien invasion movie where you get to play as the aliens. Just the idea of hopping in a flying saucer and laying waste to the cities of men would carry a game all by itself, and doing it as a period piece even more so, which makes it rather surprising that we haven’t seen another game quite like this one in recent years. Which makes it somewhat of missed opportunity that this new version of the game lacks for a black-and-white filter that could have supplied an extra mood boost.

But we still get the lasers and flying saucers, and, of course, the permission to lay gleeful waste to ‘50s suburbia. Outside of his saucer, Crypto gets to walk around on foot, either disguising himself as a hapless human or wreaking havoc with all the alien rifles, probes, and psychic powers at his disposal, and these are the sections where the game gets to show off much more of its creativity. Crypto can lift and throw all of Earth’s pitiful creatures with his telekinetic powers, and there’s plenty of weaponry allowing you to either shock enemies to death, reduce them to skeletons, or shoot a device that allows Crypto to probe them so hard that their brains pop out. No one ever accused Destroy All Humans! of being a particularly mature game.

Except when, surprisingly, it is. There’s a mean undercurrent to this game, whose human characters are all ‘50s caricatures, many of them suggesting white-bread castoffs from a Norman Rockwell tableau. And with Crypto’s mind-reading powers, you get to hear that which is thinly disguised behind the upright citizen’s façade: the racism, the Nixon and McCarthy worship, the self-hating homophobia. “I wonder if I ought to hit somebody with my nightstick,” thinks one police officer. “Could be fun.” All of that suggested a smirking parody of a not-so-great America back in 2005 when the game was originally released, but today it plays as an unsubtle reminder of how little things have changed in this country since the ‘50s. The game’s political humor simply hits very different now, and it makes all the different ways that Crypto can mess up Main Street, U.S.A. all the more impactful.

The good news is that it’s definitely much easier to do that now than in 2005, with the remake getting a whole host of much welcome and smartly implemented quality-of-life improvements that bring the original game’s clunky controls up to code. What was once a stiff, finger-tangling process of switching between weapons and telekinesis is handled with a modern, elegant weapon wheel, and a separate button for telekinesis. A mid-air dash and, later, a pair of hover skates make on-foot traversal much easier, and more dynamic.

All of that, however, isn’t exactly a panacea for the things that haven’t aged as well. The highly regimented and rote mission structure still makes some missions feel a bit empty, especially now that open-world quest mechanics have evolved so far past how the original version of Destroy All Humans! did things. The difficulty curve swings wildly from mission to mission, which could have been flattened with a dedicated button for lock-on targeting. This is a game before its time in many ways, but there are parts here that were clearly made in 2005.

Still, Destroy All Humans! moves at such a steady clip that you won’t find yourself fixating for too long on the things it does wrong. Even the more annoying missions tend to breeze by, ushering players toward the next nifty weapon or hilarious cutscene without breaking stride for much more than to let players upgrade their arsenal. And there’s a relief to that. Modern open world games are designed in such a way that bad design decisions tend to stew and linger in ways they don’t here. This is the kind of game you don’t realize you missed until you start playing it, one that doesn’t demand much of the player’s time or commitment or discipline but is just trying to find new ways to amuse you from one stage to another.

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

Developer: Black Forest Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SWERY’s Deadly Premonition 2 Is a Janky, Navel-Gazing Exercise

Everything about your quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise.

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Deadly Premonition 2: Blessing in Disguise
Photo: Rising Star Games

Lise Clarkson’s body has been found after 14 years, her dismembered body parts pristinely reassembled and frozen in a block of ice, like something out of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Every bit as striking as this opening to Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is the reveal that the prime suspect in Clarkson’s murder is none other than Francis Zach Morgan, the “metaphysical offender” who was at the center of 2010’s Deadly Premonition. But it quickly becomes clear that this game, both a sequel and prequel to the original, is largely unconcerned with taking Zach’s potential guilt seriously. It is, though, quite interested in waxing rhapsodically about the power of pizza, and having you bow down before creator and director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro’s love of esoterica.

Indeed, Clarkson’s murder is just a bait and switch. You think you’re going to delve into the supernatural horrors surrounding her death, but instead you spend most of your time listening to characters quip about how a personal connection to the 1986 Sylvester Stallone film Cobra can help one to appreciate frozen pizza, or, in one of many fourth-wall-breaking moments, how by-the-book F.B.I agent Aaliyah Davis and her eccentric techie partner, Simon Jones, would be “the perfect stars for the latest video game.” These asides are endemic to Blessing in Disguise, the bread and butter of both the brief 2019 sequences and the remainder of the game, which transpires in 2005 in Le Carré, Louisiana and features Zach’s earlier self, Francis York Morgan. (If you haven’t played Deadly Premonition, this won’t make any sense, as A Blessing in Disguise can’t be bothered to bring newcomers up to speed.)

The game’s present-day timeline is little more than a non-interactive visual novel, as Aaliyah’s investigation is limited to her asking Zach about random objects, like a shrine of milk cartons, in his one-bedroom Boston apartment. The game never stops shunting the mystery to the side, but being restricted to Zach’s apartment at least keeps things somewhat focused, and because the action all transpires within a few hours, it at least has a feeling of immediacy. York’s 2005 case allows him to more freely, albeit sluggishly, roam through Le Carré, but he’s essentially going through the same rote click-to-investigate motions as Aaliyah, the difference being that the objects he interacts with are thousands of meters apart, a distance that he inexplicably chooses to cover on a skateboard he calls “my darling.” Like its predecessor, A Blessing in Disguise operates on a 24-hour schedule, and while you certainly feel the pull of time, you don’t feel the urgency to investigate the game’s various crimes, which take a back seat to your attempts to set high scores at barely functional minigames like rock-skipping and bowling.

Everything about York’s quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise. The game’s 24-hour schedule forces you to spend a good chunk of each chapter literally wasting time by smoking cigarettes and camping out in the street, waiting to trigger events that only occur at dawn or during an establishment’s business hours. But as empty as it feels to use inventory items to force time to pass, that’s still preferable to the other activities the game offers up: hunting squirrels, dogs, gators, and bees; foraging for items in dumpsters, mailboxes, and fields; and shooting mysterious miniature UFOs out of the sky.

Throughout, the materials you collect, or the stat-boosting charms you craft from them, are somewhat necessary, but the disappointing rewards further spell the game’s irrelevance. There are “realistic” systems in place to account for York’s hunger, sleepiness, body odor, and sobriety, but they’re barely connected to the plot. (Which is to say nothing of how questionably realistic it is that otherworldly monsters tend to drop fresh cups of coffee when slain.) And the meaningless of the game’s busywork is compounded by the poor frame rate and low-texture graphics that would’ve seemed cut-rate even on an early-2000s console.

Given the disconnect between the game’s various systems, it’s hard to view SWERY as anything more than an amateur auteur. He imitates others, but to what end? In the vein of Hideo Kojima, he suffuses his games with pop-cultural references but never shows poetic aspirations. He channels Suda51’s irreverence but not the satirical bite of No More Heroes. He even has Aaliyah indiscriminately quote Nietzsche, which would be a well-intentioned effort to guide players through a philosophical inquiry of crime and morality, if only these references connected in the slightest to the story at hand. Referencing hyperrealism and likening the way York’s hand transforms into a Psychogun as being like that scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome doesn’t make this game smart; it outs it as a spectacle of flimsy appropriation, which is evident even in the demonic “Pains” that York faces in the Other World, all inexplicably named after stock characters from commedia dell’arte.

This is also a game that mistakes character development for quirky things happening to characters or being done by them. In one scene, a family’s patriarch forces his son-in-law to feed his own arm to an alligator—a cruel moment that’s never acknowledged again. In another, a character delivers a five-minute-long monologue detailing all of the work he’s put into the ritual he’s about to enact, only to anticlimactically set his knife down, having changed his mind mere moments later. Rather than have to address the effect of these decisions, Deadly Premonition 2 generally just kills off its characters, a particularly maddening move when it comes to the game’s transgender character, Lena, whose efforts to settle things with her family would have benefited from even a superficial grasp of her emotions.

And that’s how the game treats its main characters, as the side ones are either stereotyped and saddled with tics that invite our laughter more than our empathy. There’s a crawfisherman whose most memorable feature is his dwarfism, a bartender who stands out only on account of his tight white underpants, and the employees at the hotel you’re staying at who are all the same person, each one defined by a different, terrible accent.

Ironically, by the time A Blessing in Disguise finally gets around to introducing monsters into the mix, you may find yourself longing for the quirkiness of its shallow caricatures of people. Not only do three of the game’s four chapters end in identical red-misted corridors with no distinguishing features or puzzles, they also recycle the same three enemy archetypes: a creature with giant scissors who snips toward you, a giant chained to a doorway who releases lock-shaped explosive crabs from his bindings, and a half-naked woman who slinks toward you, summoning tentacles. These survival horror sequences are neither scary nor fun, and the most challenging thing about them, beyond their forcing you to try to auto-adjust your aim in order to account for the stuttering lag in the frame rate, is how you have to push past boredom. Consider, then, these sequences not so much a premonition but a warning born of experience: Turn back all who enter here, for there is nothing good awaiting within.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by Thunderful.

Developer: Toybox Inc., White Owls Inc. Publisher: Rising Star Games Platform: Switch Release Date: July 10, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost of Tsushima Lacks Ambition but Is Rife with Poetic Flourishes

The game has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny.

3.5

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Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Despite the game being about as far as you can get from a story set in 13th-century Japan, there’s a quote from Mass Effect 3 that kept echoing in my head throughout the 40-plus hours it took me to complete Ghost of Tsushima: “Stand amongst the ashes of a trillion dead souls, and ask the ghosts if honor matters.” It’s a wonderfully poetic line of dialogue, from a game that’s every bit as concerned with how people fight a righteous war, and how much tradition and legacy and optics play a role in that.

Poetry can be wrung from human attempts to justify horrific but necessary actions—it’s just that, aside from the occasional line of dialogue like the aforementioned one, video games as a medium are often lunkheaded when it comes to deploying poetry. Bless Ghost of Tsushima, then, for trying to do so. Sucker Punch’s latest has a rich, painterly beauty that places a premium on silence, and on the way its systems treat swordplay, creating environmental systems that bring awe to even the most mundane scenes. And the game very much explores the relevance of honor in a world that requires the wetwork of bastards. Quite often, Ghost of Tsushima suggests poetry in motion, but it’s still playing in a space that relies too much on imprudence for mass appeal.

That foolishness was baked into Ghost of Tsushima right from the conceptual stage, as this is a game about Japanese culture and traditions that doesn’t have a single Japanese person credited as a writer or creative director. It’s a problem somewhat mitigated by how many Asian creatives were still involved in its making, but this is still a game that caters to players who’ve maybe seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and aren’t likely to do a double take while their character composes (largely meaningless) haikus some 400 years before Matsuo Bashō was even born, or being told that a particularly murderous Japanese woman had to teach the Mongols, of all people, how to properly use a bow and arrow. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to extend the good-faith exception to Ghost of Tsushima and judge it not for its historical accuracy, but for its true aim of delivering a lurid, pulpy tale of samurai vengeance set in one of the most strikingly beautiful open worlds ever crafted for a video game, you will find that it’s a ringing, if pointedly unambitious, success.

The game is set in 1274, as the Mongols, during their first invasion of Japan, raid their way across the tiny island of Tsushima. Our hero, Jin Sakai, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, are the first to try their hands against the invaders, but led by Khotun Khan, a soft-spoken but hulking, brutal warlord, the Mongols lay waste to the island’s best samurai—save for Lord Shimura, who’s held hostage, and Jin, who’s left for dead on a beach until a thief named Yuna nurses him back to health. Determined to get his uncle back by any means necessary, Jin adopts a few tactics frowned upon by proper samurai warriors, and makes a name for himself across the countryside as the Ghost, defending the weak and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds more like the stuff of Batman than of the code of Bushido, but it’s difficult to deny that that game makes it feel really good to play as a samurai caped crusader. It’s gratifying to wander beautiful watercolor valleys and approach marauders with steel in the eyes and hands, taking them down with extreme prejudice. And, in general, the combat is exquisitely simple, for basically forcing players to match their sword style with that of their enemies at the push of a button, and for the way the game’s forgiving parry system leads you to harshly punish enemy mistakes. Ghost of Tsushima’s most thoughtful and well-executed element is its Standoff mechanic, where pressing a button within a certain distance invites a group of enemies to send their best warrior for a face-to-face quickdraw, which is quite literally predicated on the visceral release of tension, of letting go of the attack button and opening an enemy’s neck.

The game largely follows the open-world action-adventure playbook to the letter, with all the map exploration, base-clearing, and collectible hunting that implies. On its face, that’s disappointing, especially given that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was more ambitious on that front. But that’s also a game that breathlessly hinges on survival and has no interest in giving you power and exhilaration. Sekiro is out to kill you, whereas Ghost of Tsushima is literally and figuratively guiding players to follow where the breeze takes them.

Across this game, Jin takes up the sword not just for the scattered resistance fighters attempting to force the invaders off their land, but in the name of farmers in search of their dead families, warriors looking to avenge their fallen comrades, dying family members looking to clear the enemy out of their ancestral cemeteries, and just straight-up bloody revenge against a horde of bandits. Alluring little side stories dot your path to the next major objective, and as you’re constrained by the limits of having to travel such long distances by horseback, the game gives you plenty of opportunity to get lost—all the better to let its beautiful and tranquil approach to storytelling wash over you. The basic bones of Ghost of Tsushima are open-world tropes, but they hold up thrilling little dimestore tales that could have been pulled from a collection of Lone Wolf and Cub manga, and those tropes are executed with a deliberate elegance that’s rare in the big-budget game space.

It’s frustrating, then, how often the game pulls the reins back on our joy, to remind us that we’re somehow playing the role of a samurai wrong. As much as dissonant ludonarrative guilt usually grinds up against the sheer glee of stabbing an enemy in the back here, it’s especially unfortunate when one of the lovingly rendered assassinations triggers a cutscene with Lord Shimura reminding Jin how he promised never to do that same exact thing. But for what it’s worth, the best elements of the story also seem self-aware of such hypocrisy.

For one, the first samurai you ever see on screen attempts to face Khotun Khan face to face, with honor, and the warlord retorts by setting the man on fire. Later, when Jin finds himself playing dirty against Khan’s forces, resulting in an aftermath that would be horrifically grisly if it wasn’t against proven monsters, Jin proudly states that he did what had to be done to crush the enemy. Throughout, you probably won’t regret anything, and the story will, by and large, take your side over strict samurai doctrine. It’s made abundantly clear that this is a fight that requires monsters, and aside from two very story-specific missions, you’re allowed to confront the enemy in whatever way you see fit, with no long-lasting effects on the game world itself.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then again, why even attempt to instill guilt on the player at all if there’s no imperative to change the way you play the game? Even The Last of Us Part II has the sense to use the player’s own bloodlust against them, as a means of underlining how emotionally tiring and spiritually numbing it is. The guilt over becoming the Ghost, and all the grotesquery that implies, is the crux of Ghost of Tsushima’s story, but it’s a non-issue until the game sporadically decides it is one, admonishing us for using stealthy, ninja-like tactics but giving no impetus to want to stop doing so. It’s not until the emotionally complex epilogue that regret means anything for more than a few scant minutes at a time, and plopping the need for regret in the middle of the game’s most magnificent and cathartic moments of savagery comes across half-hearted at best.

That’s a byproduct of Ghost of Tsushima not pushing the envelope far enough away from its open-world ancestors. The things that would rush the game toward maturity—a firmer handle on history, a more in-depth exploration of the deeply stratified and elitist samurai caste system, or making Jin’s defiance of his uncle’s teachings a more proactive thing in the player’s hands—are largely left underdeveloped. Instead, like many big-budget prestige games, this one settles for “that primally satisfying violence you’re doing is bad.”

That Mass Effect 3 quote is a good summation of Ghost of Tsushima, but there’s a much more poetic one enabled right from the options menu: a visual filter called Kurosawa mode that renders the whole game in grainy black and white. You can even turn on the Japanese language track for an extra hint of verisimilitude, and some particularly strong performances from the voice cast. But no matter how excellent those performances are, or how much the visuals suggest deleted scenes from Rashomon, it’s hard to ignore that the characters’ lips are in sync with the English dub, and that the subtitles fail to convey what the Japanese actors are saying. Which is to say, Ghost of Tsushima has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny, revealing that it serves Western blockbuster tastes and tenets above all. It’s a game that so desperately wants to be 13 Assassins but more times than not ends up looking like The Last Samurai.

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

Developer: Sucker Punch Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity Buy: Game

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Review: Paper Mario: The Origami King Is a Cut (and Fold) Above Other Comic RPGs

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles.

4.5

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Paper Mario: The Origami King
Photo: Nintendo

Late in Paper Mario: The Origami King, Mario’s charming new origami companion, Olivia, thanks him for all his hard work in saving both her and the Mushroom Kingdom from her power-mad brother, Olly, and his Folded Soldiers. Though Mario’s efforts are credited to “the power of flat paper,” and Mario himself is a literally two-dimensional character, there’s nothing flat about this latest Paper Mario game, a delightful ode to craft and creativity that squeezes new possibilities (and puns) out of the beloved series.

Being a more-is-more game, it isn’t enough for The Origami King to have Olly’s evil henchmen be sentient art supplies, or have cleverly named attacks, like the bright and pointy missiles in Colored Pencil’s “art-senal.” Nor is it enough that each baddie has a vivid and comic identity, like the gangster Tape (“Stick ‘em up” indeed) or Stapler, an attack dog with metallic “teeth.” On top of all that, each boss fight is yoked to a unique gimmick, from Hole Punch taking chunks out of the arena to Handaconda forcing you to play a high-stakes game of Rock-Paper-Scissors mid-battle. Even after nearly 30 hours of immersion in this latest Paper Mario, which now brings massive open regions like the Scorching Sandpaper Desert and The Wind Waker-like the Great Sea to the mix, the game continues to surprise and delight.

Though based on a decades-old formula, The Origami King never feels like more of the same. A river-rapids minigame is followed by an in-depth trading quest within a Japanese-themed amusement park, Shogun Studios. A relaxing stay in the hot tubs of Shangri-Spa is first interrupted by a chase sequence involving a papier-mâché Chain Chomp and later by a Mario Party-like series of minigames on the game-show-within-a-game Shy Guys Finish Last.

The Origami King does feature traditional dungeons, but even here, the puzzles and themes remain wholly distinct; the closest overlap is between two types of sliding block puzzles. One, in the Water Vellumental Temple, involves moving slabs around to form a path. And later, in the Ice Vellumental Temple, you’ll have to find a way to hammer your icy floe from wall to wall across a slippery floor. And as for the game’s character work—well, let me just say that this reviewer didn’t expect to ever feel so much compassion for Bowser’s long-suffering magician, Kamek, nor to fall heartbreakingly in love with an amnesiac Bob-omb.

The game’s biggest change, though, is its spin—literally—on combat. Like most of the Paper Mario games, battles are turn-based, with Mario using various Boots and Hammers (and the occasional Fire and Ice Flower or Tail) to attack foes. Active timing is still key, with extra damage awarded (or blocked) if players press a button before each animated attack lands. But now, in addition to those components, each battle opens on a dartboard-like grid that’s divided into four circles and 12 slices. Players are given a limited amount of time and a set number of moves with which to slide or rotate enemies into place: Putting four enemies in a column means that Mario can hit all four with a single, down-the-line jump attack, and the proper alignment of all your foes not only awards bonus coins, but grants a damage multiplier.

As this long-winded explanation of combat suggests, regular encounters can sometimes get a little overcomplicated and tedious. But that’s almost apt given the game’s origami theme. After all, folding and creasing should be more complicated than the collage-like combat of Paper Mario: Sticker Star or the card-combining mechanics of Paper Mario: Color Splash. Moreover, it’s not just some slapdash extra feature. While bosses all require unique and specific interactions with the board, even regular enemies often gain an extra dimension from the ring-based arena, like vanishing Boos, whose positions must be remembered, or Lil’ Cutouts, whose intimidating paper-chain armies must quickly be spun back down to size.

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles. Each region is teeming with hidden question-mark blocks and Toads that have been folded up into amusing new objects, and a “fax travel” system allows you to fairly quickly backtrack in your fight against “orgamized crime.” The Origami King has so much exuberance and confidence in all of its designs that even if you’re not completely sold on the combat—and there are modifiers that allow you to get rescued Toads to help solve it for you—the game will still win over all but the most puzzle-phobic and pun-hating players.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin on July 17.

Developer: Intelligent Systems Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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