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Review: Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3

CI Games’s latest, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3, puts the player’s courage and tolerance to the test.

2.5

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Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3
Photo: Gearbox Software

To be a sniper is to be an individual with immeasurable patience, to be a ghost implies a sense of restlessness, and to be a warrior one must exude great bravery. Often times we expect all of these to be the qualities of the protagonists we inhabit within video-game worlds, but in the case of developer CI Games’s latest, it’s the player’s courage and tolerance that are put to the test. Much like the jumbled mess of nouns that is the game’s title, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 often feels like a haphazardly thrown together batch of ideas—some pretty good, most not so much—which will test the player’s resolve as the game desperately tries to grasp the “AAA” moniker, only to be left clutching onto a disjointed and disappointing adventure.

The game’s narrative begins with a basic premise and through its entirety makes absolutely no effort to surprise, delight, or even engage us. The majority of the campaign takes place within the country of Georgia, and players—who are put into the boots of American Marine Jon North—are tasked with the duty of putting down an insurgent group of separatist cells that are causing all sorts of trouble for civilians and the local government. During the game’s prologue, we learn that Jon’s brother, a fellow marine, has been taken hostage by an unknown enemy, which means that our protagonist is more than happy to accept the assignment in Georgia when he hears that his brother has been sighted in the area. Unfortunately, every aspect of this plot is so by-the-book that most players will see each twist coming from a mile away. But on top of that, the only revelatory moments come in the form of situations that play out even more disappointingly than expected.

Ghost Warrior 3 is at its finest when it has players perched at a great distance from targets, making you compensate for wind velocity, bullet drop, and elevation as you release projectiles which seemingly bend through the air before penetrating the cranium of an unsuspecting enemy. Jon has access to several neat tools throughout the game’s campaign, none more useful than his trusty drone. Using it to scout ahead makes locating valued assets and pinpointing enemy positions easy, and allows players to plan their approach, adding a tactical sense to the proceedings. Stealth isn’t only an option, but a priority in most scenarios, and as such understanding your surroundings is key. Those looking to truly embrace the “ghost” part of the game’s title will have to think ahead, considering the basics like enemy patrol routes and the more complex like factoring in where your bullet is going to go—and how much noise it’s going to make—after it passes through a skull.

It’s surprising, though, that only a couple of the missions throughout the eight-to-10-hour campaign truly utilize the size of the game’s maps, and even fewer make use of environmental effects like rain, which means scenarios where you truly feel like an elite sniper are few and far between. The game features an abundance of gadgets and weaponry, but most are superfluous and only serve to create an overly complex and needlessly cluttered UI and menu system. Features like the truly uninspired and virtually useless skill tree could have been omitted entirely, which would have allowed more attention to be paid to the presently lackluster graphics, unresponsive controls, or the egregiously long load times and crashes that plague the experience. Rather than buckling down and refining their stronger ideas, CI Games cluttered the experience with a bunch of surplus, resulting in a game that has no standout features, and thus no truly memorable or genuinely impressive traits.

Ghost Warrior 3 has been touted as an open-world game, but aside from some snowy areas, pretty much all the environments are identical in appearance—and filled to the brim with near-pointless and repetitive side objectives. One quick glance at the mini-map and you’d think you were playing a Ubisoft title, and worse yet is the reward for clearing most of the optional quests: pointless currency which the main quest line already gives more than enough of. While having a large open area inherently gives one more options when tackling an objective, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. CI Games should have taken notes from Sniper Elite 4: Creating large zones is great, as long as they’re diverse and fun to navigate. Getting in your car and driving 1,000 meters past the same monotonous scenery time and time again equates to a waste of space rather than a thoughtfully designed world.

Developer: CI Games Publisher: Gearbox Software Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 25, 2017 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Nioh 2 Frustratingly Fights Against Its Own Framework

The game is limited by the static nature of its mission-based structure and the protagonist’s severe lack of motivation.

2.5

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Nioh 2
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Hide, the half-human, half-Yokai protagonist of Nioh 2, fights against both a slew of historical figures from the late Sengoku period and a horde of colorful monsters. But bigger than any battle in the game is the one Team Ninja fought behind the scenes in trying to follow in the footsteps of 2017’s Nioh without getting too repetitive. It’s a goal they don’t quite achieve. The core gameplay of the original has been expanded upon, with fun new weapons like a scythe-spear hybrid called the switchglaive and terrifying new monsters like the Ippon-Datara, which bounces toward you using its massive sword as a pogo stick. But the level-to-level design remains disappointingly the same, however much Nioh 2 tries to distract from it. Even the game’s extra dimension—a surreal Dark Realm—does little more than add a splash of magical color to each arena and provide bosses with a wider range of attacks.

All of these new features are just wallpaper over the same repetitive loops. You get all of the methodical, punishing combat of Dark Souls and the loot collecting of Diablo but none of the freedom offered by those titles. Without the illusion of progressing through a larger, interconnected world, players are essentially resetting between each mission, over and over again. Visual variety and the occasional gimmick—a burning multistory foundry, a river that can be dammed, a haunted forest with spectral spotlights that must be avoided—cannot fully paper over the game’s inescapable linearity. Whether you’re manipulating a massive mining elevator or pushing through an enemy encampment in the valleys of Anegawa, each area mainly serves as a gauntlet of escalating encounters. Side missions are even more linear, and the way that they recycle smaller areas of the main missions, but at different hours or seasons, at times makes Nioh 2 feel like the world’s slowest racing game.

Nioh 2 admirably attempts to cover a large chunk of Japanese history, beginning in 1555 and ending (for the most part) in 1598. But to do so, the game veers toward broad depictions of historical figures and events, and it assumes that players are familiar enough with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi to fill in the missing context and motivation for what’s shown, like the raid on Inabayama Castle. Worse, the protagonist is largely treated as a mute bystander, inexplicably doing the bidding of their bumbling employer, Tokichiro. The story is so emotionally shallow and poorly presented that even big narrative cutscenes, like the one in which Hide confronts their father, are only clearly laid out in the in-game synopsis.

Thankfully, the game’s combat is never anything other than crystal clear. Each melee weapon has a low, medium, and high stance, and players can use a purifying pulse to chain together combos from multiple weapons or poses. Managing one’s ki (or stamina) is more fluid than in other Dark Souls-like games because of the ways in which it can be recovered, and this leads to a faster, more balletic form of battling, one that has learned all the right lessons from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, right down to its high-risk, high-reward form of Burst Counters.

The wide variety of Yokai also forces players to keep adapting the way in which they approach foes throughout the game, and the weapons used to do so; a spear, for instance, does well to keep the ember-winged Koroka at bay, whereas a pair of agile hatchets may be the better counter against the snake-headed Rokrokubi. Best of all, players can appropriate the special attacks of these Yokai by gathering and equipping their cores, Pokémon-style. If anything, the game’s so flexible that it devalues the blacksmith and shrine attunement options, as there’s rarely a need to spend resources leveling up existing gear or cores when you can instead simply keep swapping to newly discovered, fresher options.

Nioh 2 has also made it easier to recruit allies, which helps to alleviate the game’s overall difficulty. You can still challenge evil versions of other players at Revenant Graves, hoping to win a piece of their gear, but now you have the Benevolent Graves, where you can summon good versions of those players to fight alongside you until they die. It’s a nice concession to those who want a little more control over the game’s high difficulty, and while you can still go it alone for maximum challenge, these extra units can provide some valuable breathing room.

For as much as Nioh 2 has improved the variety and accessibility of the original’s combat, it’s still limited by the static nature of its mission-based structure and the protagonist’s severe lack of motivation. Worse, the environments and story now seem more visibly to be coasting in a post-Sekiro world. In short, we’ve seen all of this before. Ultimately, while the in-game fighting against samurai and Yokai works well, it’s impossible to ignore the many ways in which Nioh 2 seems to be fighting against its own framework.

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

Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 13, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming.

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time
Photo: Playdead

When people think of horror-themed video games, their minds often go to the survival-horror conventions popularized by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. Of being stuck in claustrophobic and menacing places, of running low on resources, of limping from an injury as some ghastly being drags or stomps toward you, following your trail of blood. To survive in the world of these games depends as much on how players use their unique skill sets as it does on how they learn to manage their nerves.

Yes, sometimes the effect of a horror game is not unlike that of a schlocky jump scare-athon, but horror comes in many shades across all mediums. For one, there are the action titles, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Bloodborne, that rely on the concepts of well-known horror stories, sinister and theatrical music, and well-above-average difficulty levels to intimidate and overwhelm players. And the terrifying logic of fever dreams, rather than the creaky old machinery of horror, can foist an otherwise non-gloomy series like The Legend of the Zelda into the realm of nightmares.

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming. But more than anything, the following selections represent what we believe are the most provocative, well-executed, and timeless examples of horror in the medium. Jed Pressgrove


Paratopic

25. Paratopic (2018)

Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic’s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Steven Scaife


Castlevania: Bloodlines

24. Castlevania: Bloodlines (1993)

The gothic-themed Castlevania games have always featured a wide assortment of iconic scary figures, from Frankenstein to the Grim Reaper to primary antagonist Dracula. But it wasn’t until 1993, with the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, that the series achieved a more chilling and disorienting brand of horror, with platforms that inexplicably drip blood, a boss that may arouse your unexpected sympathy when it begins to nervously clutch its beaten head, and a Leaning Tower of Pisa stage that imprisons the player in a state of hurried movement and vertigo. Visual tricks throughout the game ratchet up a sense of shock and confusion, culminating in a final level that defiantly cuts the traditional side-scrolling view into three uneven sections so as to scramble the positions of the main character’s body parts on the screen. A masterpiece of ambitious 2D game design, Castlevania: Bloodlines doesn’t need three-dimensional space to discombobulate one’s senses. Pressgrove


Parasite Eve

23. Parasite Eve (1998)

With its concise length, mixture of active time battle and survival-horror gameplay, and modern New York City setting, 1998’s Parasite Eve was a dramatic risk for director Takashi Tokita. Leaving behind the traditional adventurous spirit of the games that made Square famous as a company, Parasite Eve is marked by a melancholic and disturbing type of energy, as in its opening doozy of a scene, which starts with the Statue of Liberty looking as if she’s been struck by grief and ends with an opera performance that climaxes with its audience members bursting helplessly into flames. The game’s emphasis on gun resource management suggests a nod to the tension-building methods of Resident Evil, but the true terror in Parasite Eve lies in the emotional and psychological vulnerability of rookie cop protagonist Aya, who mourns her dead sister and whose source of supernatural power has an uncomfortably close connection to the evil feminine force that she must conquer.Pressgrove


The Last of Us

22. The Last of Us (2013)

Come for the zombies, stay for the giraffes. Dead Space fans will smile as they navigate claustrophobic sewage tunnels, Metal Gear Solid vets will have a blast outmaneuvering a psychotic cannibal, Resident Evil junkies will enjoy trying to sneak past noise-sensitive Clickers, Fallout experts will find every scrap of material to scavenge, Dead Rising pros will put Joel’s limited ammunition and makeshift shivs to good use, and Walking Dead fans will be instantly charmed by the evolving relationship between grizzled Joel and the tough young girl, Ellie, he’s protecting. But The Last of Us stands decaying heads and rotting shoulders above its peers because it’s not just about the relentless struggle to survive, but the beauty that remains: the sun sparkling off a distant hydroelectric dam; the banks of pure, unsullied snow; even the wispy elegance of otherwise toxic spores. Oh, and giraffes, carelessly walking through vegetative cities, the long-necked light at the end of the tunnel that’s worth surviving for. Aaron Riccio


Will You Ever Return? 2

21. Will You Ever Return? 2 (2012)

Jack King-Spooner’s singular vision of hell is grotesque and discordant, with bits of clay jammed together amid cut-out art, jaunty tunes, and squishy noises. Playing as the mugger from the previous game (which is bundled with this sequel in the Will You Ever Return? Double Feature), you take in infernal sights that, at first, seem impossibly goofy. There’s only one real jump scare in the whole game, yet the way this visual and aural assault oscillates between comedy, sadness, and ominous prescience accumulates its own disturbing, soulful power. Staring long enough at the jerky, claymation torture rooms sneaks beneath our usual resistance to traditional horror imagery, prodding at philosophical weak points we didn’t know we had. The mugger’s journey of self-discovery takes him through his own sins and fears, leading to a place of acceptance that emphasizes humanity’s ability to rob one another of the only things that truly matter. Scaife

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Review: Doom Eternal Is a World-Class Shooter with an Uneven Story

There’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions.

3.5

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Doom Eternal
Photo: Bethesda

The Doom approach is one of remarkable coherence. The series’s protagonist is essentially a personified meat grinder who signifies its single-minded goal: Demons from hell are invading our world, and they must be killed. He needs no voice, no name. He’s simply known as the Doom Slayer, the angriest space marine in the world with an undying grudge and an itchy trigger finger. Where the 2016 game brought the series back to its comfort zone of impossibly fast first-person combat with roaring confidence, Doom Eternal once again branches out, indulging in the platforming and the more involved storytelling that filled in the edges of that game, albeit to somewhat uneven results.

In this sequel, hell is a place on Earth, a world overrun by monstrosities and the cultists who worship them. Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw.

Throughout Doom Eternal, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Enemies now have weak points that may be destroyed to cripple their fighting styles; the spidery Arachnotron’s brain-mounted turret, for example, will suddenly jump to the front of your mental priority queue in an arena that offers little refuge from its barrage.

This world-class shooter is as relentless as it is deceptively thoughtful. And to that mechanical mastery, the developers give the Doom Slayer a greater sense of mobility, as he may climb walls and swing from bars. To the combat, that mobility adds an even greater propulsion and verticality, particularly in concert with one ability that slows down time while you aim in mid-air. To the intricate level design, it provides a momentary reprieve from the frequent firefights and a new layer of exploration to finding secret power-ups and collectibles. At its best, it feels like a natural extension of a shooter that rewards reflexes as much as paying attention to your surroundings and thinking through movements; taking a moment to pause and puzzle over the map to find a secret item fits right in against the chunky, forceful tactility of the platforming where the Doom Slayer digs his fingers into a climbable wall.

At other times, the game’s open combat arenas don’t always succeed in drawing your attention to those acrobatic elements in the heat of battle. While the demanding onslaughts of optional Slayer Gate challenges pressure you to make the most of a given space, it’s a little too easy to miss the portals, swinging bars, and adjoining rooms of the regular, less challenging arenas. Particularly at the start, you only notice them long after every demon has been put down.

Likewise, one particular enemy, the Marauder, slows down the flow of combat by forcing you into periods of waiting for specifically timed counters. But the game’s single shakiest addition is largely outside the confines of its otherwise exceptional play mechanics; the story of Doom Eternal is a bizarre, overcomplicated affair mainly conveyed in collectible text entries littered with proper nouns and gestures toward a more expansive universe. Pivotal characters and events are left largely unexplained unless you take the time to read about them in the menu. On some level, it makes sense to leave this backstory optional and allow players to blow through levels rather than sit through explanatory cutscenes, but it’s also totally disorienting, as the beginning of the game plays like you missed a cutscene or an expansion pack.

While it’s true that no one comes to Doom for the story, the previous game told a surprisingly good one that was crucial to its appeal. Its concept of a future Earth and Mars mining hell itself for energy was akin to a satire of capitalism and climate change by way of a heavy-metal album cover, with a protagonist who had little patience for the usual trappings of video game storytelling. The Doom Slayer pushed aside explanatory screens and smashed whatever the voice on the radio told him not to break because there was no point in negotiation; this state of affairs was simply wrong, and it had to be stopped.

Flashes of that ethos remain in Doom Eternal, in how Earth is now similarly overrun by demonic forces and there’s nothing to discuss, no third parties to placate. Cultists have even co-opted language of political correctness, insisting that hell’s denizens be deemed “mortally challenged” and that they be helped through blood donations. But whatever bits of the prior game’s humor remain, they’re largely absent that metatextual edge, instead digging into largely straight-faced backstories and motivations that feel entirely beside the point. The Doom Slayer’s refusal to compromise has given way to audio logs that aggrandize him and other “chosen one” subplots that suggest that the series is beginning to lose the plot. For as thrilling as it is to see Doom Eternal try some new things, the game also dilutes some of the carefully honed appeal from what was once a more coherent whole.

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

Developer: id Software Publisher: Bethesda Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 20, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence Buy: Game

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Review: With Persona 5 Royal, a Masterful Game Rises to Greatness

The game speaks in specific and effective ways to the sheer exhaustion of living in perpetual strife.

5

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Persona 5 Royal
Photo: Atlus

Given everything that’s happened in the world since the release of Persona 5 in 2017, it’s not exactly a surprise that the game comes across a lot differently today. What is surprising is just how much Persona 5 Royal seems to lean into that fact, speaking in specific and effective ways to the sheer exhaustion of living in perpetual strife, even while delivering the catharsis of standing together against turmoil, even surviving it.

This is a game about the abuse of power, where every major villain represents a facet of society that’s turned poisonous, from art plagiarists to abusive educators to corrupt law enforcement. It’s up to the protagonist, Joker, and his band of merry high school outcasts to fight the good fight from the inside, magically whisking themselves into the collective unconscious by disguising themselves as badass, leather-clad avengers called the Phantom Thieves. And their goal is to literally tear down the palaces of conglomerate evil and greed that the story’s social monsters have built for themselves in their minds. It isn’t hyperbole to say that that’s about as joyous and cathartic a concept for a game as we’re going to get in 2020, especially given the gaming industry’s worsening allergy to political stances in high-profile titles such as this one.

The most powerful aspect of Royal is its propensity for self-reflection. There are new reminders that our heroes, while brave and outspoken, are still ultimately teenagers dealing with quite a bit of physical and emotional pain when they’re not performing mind heists. The most significant new character here is a student counselor/therapist named Maruki, and in order to explore the psychological effects of fighting the good fight, the Phantom Thieves have their therapy sessions with him in the game’s reality. These sessions are poignant and melancholic in their own right, but it’s all set up for a protracted endgame that recategorizes the sadness and exhaustion and extended periods of hopelessness these kids feel as genuine trauma. Persona 5 is still a game about the bravery it takes to live life in the face of pervasive injustice, but the new narrative content here is far more candid about the price of it all.

That sort of pensive messaging might suggest that Royal tends toward the relentlessly dour, but the game does the smart work of reinforcing the love and friendship that sustains Joker and his chosen family across a campaign that stretches into the 100-plus-hour range. Some of the changes are just simple and very welcome quality-of-life improvements designed to let our heroes stick it out in the game’s immense dungeons for much longer during each in-game day before running out of stamina and needing to retreat to the real world. Others, though, address major flaws, such as the way cat-shaped companion Morgana forces Joker to go to bed in Persona 5 after a busy day except after major bosses. Royal is far more permissive in that regard, as nights are now at your disposal. That leaves so much more opportunity to get out on the town, work jobs, hang out with confidants, and generally live a fuller life than in the original game. Even on nights when Morgana keeps you inside, you’re still able to do activities at home like working out, making lockpicks, watching DVDs, and cleaning.

Predominantly, this new version of the game is hitting the same story beats as before. No, Atlus hasn’t pulled a Final Fantasy XV and altered the famously aggravating last two palaces, but the developer has still chosen its battles well, improving and expanding that story in places where it would feel impactful. There are new music tracks scattered through the game during major events, dazzling new playable neighborhoods and hangout spots to see, completely reworked puzzles and quiz questions you’ll need to answer at school, and extended conversations you’ll have with friends after getting home at the end of the day.

All the ways in which the Metaverse—the alternate world the Phantom Thieves operate in—distorts and perverts that world are easier to appreciate now, especially with each boss having a new phase that hearkens much stronger to their actions in the real world. Conversely, effectively combating those villains is much more dependent on how strong a relationship you create with your allies outside the main plot. Elements of that are present in the original, but Royal rewards those relationships far more readily and organically. Going out to play darts with your friends and winning as a team, for example, grants new, additional perks to the Baton Pass system in Palaces, where giving up a turn to your companions restores HP/SP and boosts attack strength, and letting each member of your party have a turn means the last person can use abilities at no SP cost. How much of a boost you get is totally dependent on how good your relationship with each character is in the game’s real world.

The cardinal sin of the first iteration of Persona 5 is how its narrative is so disconnected from the game’s social aspects and combat. Forging friendships often feels at odds with the more traditional turn-based RPG mechanics, and even though the game makes motions toward that synchronicity, it too often takes control of the player’s time, putting the narrative on rails in ways that no healthy relationship that you create in-game should allow. Sure, you’re free to create relationships, and the game provides you with the personal breakthroughs that make every fantastical element more personal and intimate, but only on its schedule.

That, though, is no longer the case. At every turn in Royal, you’re only as good as your support system—the protagonist’s friends, his family, his teachers, and the adults who take the time to care about his well-being—and you’re encouraged to do everything possible to build it before taking on the world. For such a long game, that encouragement makes for an even more vital and of-the-moment experience than ever. If 2020 is indeed the year where it finally sinks in that we can’t rely on the adults in the room to hold societies together, we’ve never been more in need of a fantastical experience where you can stand up against all the world’s problems, with the best friends anyone could ask for right by your side.

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

Developer: Atlus, P Studio Publisher: Atlus, Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 31, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps Shines a Bright Light on Platforming

The game improves upon its predecessor, and finds new ways to demonstrate their shared eco-friendly themes.

4

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Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

Moon Studio’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps is as comforting as it is challenging. Every inch of the game is suffused with calming details, from the soothing orchestral score to the painterly 2D environments, which use layering techniques to bring background elements to life, like the sun dappling gently through a copse of trees and the animals scurrying about. You’ll often die, but you won’t feel too discouraged at any point, as the frequent, automatic checkpoints ensure that you’ll never lose too much progress. Even the plot, which repeats some of the same beats as Ori and the Blind Forest, feels reassuring. It suggests that Ori will be able to do for the corrupting blight of neighboring Niwen what he once did for his home of Nibel, and that he’ll be able to reach the same amicable resolution with Shriek, this game’s new avian antagonist, that he did with Blind Forest‘s angry Kuro.

Will of the Wisps improves upon Blind Forest, and finds new ways to demonstrate their shared eco-friendly themes. Not only are there countless NPCs to talk to, purchase items from, and go on sidequests for, there’s a hub area called the Wellspring Glades that you can help rebuild by gathering ore and seeds. These optional collectibles serve no practical purpose during gameplay, though there are health- and magic-boosting orbs that boost survivability and spirit shards that aid with accessibility by reducing (or increasing) damage and allowing Ori to stick to walls. But the sidequests on behalf of the feline Mokis and simian Gorleks are a vital experience, given the way the game gets you to emotionally invest in restoring the land. Even the inventory screen feeds into this, as it looks like a hollowed-out tree that becomes festooned with glowing orbs each time you fulfill a character’s request or recover a new item.

The game’s first act features levels, like the stormswept Inkwater Marsh and the mossy Kwolok’s Hollow, that recall several from Blind Forest, but beyond that, each area features distinct visuals and organic puzzles. For instance, the Luma Pools are brightly Seussian, filled with tufts of pink grass and floating bubbles that propel you through the air. And within the terrifying Mouldwood Depths, where you chase fireflies through pitch-black chittering caverns, you come to realize that walls are throbbing because they’re made of the cobwebbed bodies of crickets. Each new area also offers an upgrade that keeps the game’s exploration fresh and ever-evolving, as there’s always some different way to across an area, from burrowing through sand like a turbocharged worm to rocketing out of water like a flying fish.

The only place where Will of the Wisps feels contrived is in its combat. Where skirmishes were largely secondary to the overall experience of playing Blind Forest, with escape sequences filling in for traditional climactic showdowns and the majority of fights either avoidable or accomplished at range, Will of the Wisps makes combat a more central component. This would be fine if the more melee-based battles and the increased number of areas in which you must fight were as inventive as the platforming, but it’s often just mash-happy pap wherein you have to kill everything in a room in order to progress. The boss designs for a corrupted wolf, beetle, frog, spider, and owl are meticulously detailed, especially in the ways in which each shows different signs of the Decay that has infected the land, but the battles against them feel repetitive and dull. Though Ori gains many magical attacks ranging from fiery bursts to explosive spears, all that’s required is to simply jump into the air and swing away.

Will of the Wisps begins with Ori attempting to help his new friend, Ku, an owlet, learn to fly. Ori, who has no wings, teaches by constantly finding ways to stay aloft, and by the end of the game, players will rarely touch the ground as they string together moves, such as a wall jump, into a bashing carom off an enemy projectile and, then, an air-dash toward a lantern that can be grappled. The fluidity of this ballistic and balletic gameplay helps to set Will of the Wisps apart from other platformers. But those are just mechanics. It’s the love Ori shows for Ku, and vice versa, that distinguishes Will of the Wisps from almost every other game on the market.

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

Developer: Moon Studios Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform: Xbox One Release Date: March 11, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Alder’s Blood Grimly Reimagines the Realm of Turn-Based Tactics

The game often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses.

4

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Alder's Blood
Photo: No Gravity Games

Turn-based tactics games always revolve around direct confrontations with enemies on the battlefield, even in more defense-oriented titles like Into the Breach and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The old rulebook has been rewritten in Alder’s Blood, which takes place in a miserable world where God has literally been killed by humankind. Here, the absence of a higher power has led to the proliferation of demons that can cripple their prey in a blink of an eye, and so Alder’s Blood demands a sneakier style of play where concealment is paramount and running away is, at times, the best way to complete a mission.

Alder’s Blood, the brainchild of Polish developer Shockwork Games, presents its godless setting in unflattering and even critical terms. The player takes control of a party of Hunters, who look human but wield supernatural powers, the most significant of which is the ability to banish stunned demons. Banishment drains a Hunter’s stamina, a consequence that leads Duke, a blind man who was once a Hunter, to remark, “Such rituals invoke the Darkness too intimately for my liking.” Duke’s sentiment paints a picture of humankind spiraling closer to evil as it struggles to reverse the chaos that it helped bring about. Later, a guide named Myron Wright laments the loss of a better existence, commenting on the pride and greed that led to God’s murder: “We wanted more. We always do … And so mankind turned on its creator.”

It’s that much more disturbing, then, that certain demonic forces in Alder’s Blood are said to originate from God’s very corpse. And this sacrilegious concept, for irreverently suggesting that God’s essence can be corrupted, effectively gives the game an even more fatalistic vibe. An utter sense of hopelessness—also reflected in the highly demanding gameplay, where one mistake probably means you need to restart a mission—becomes the whole point of the tale.

Alder’s Blood takes an ingeniously suspenseful approach to turn-based encounters on a grid-based map that suggests a chessboard. As in many a stealth game, playable characters can avoid combat by ducking in tall grass, distract foes by throwing items from the shadows, and devastate opponents with vicious back-stabbings. One might reason that such mechanics would lead to easier victories in a system of turn-taking, as a significant challenge in stealth titles is properly reacting to events in real time. But developers at Shockwork Games introduce enough new factors to the genre framework so that Alder’s Blood winds up being one of the most challenging turn-based releases in recent memory.

One nerve-wracking element is that members of your party emit a scent that can attract demons and spoil the sanctuary of a hiding place. These scents can travel with the wind, which can change dramatically from turn to turn, across various distances, meaning that the player must constantly judge the probability of being found by a demon. Enemies also react to sound. Even in a best-case scenario where one’s entire party surrounds a single target, the wrong type of attack, like a shotgun blast, can wind up attracting the attention of off-screen threats. Alder’s Blood often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses—an exceedingly rare and thrilling characteristic for a tactical game of this sort.

Often the smartest strategy in Alder’s Blood is to eschew conflict altogether. One early mission, where your party must escape the unfairly lethal attacks of shadows that materialize right beside the Hunters, seems impossible to complete without the use of traps that can temporarily immobilize demons. In other situations, even if you have the potential to kill a couple of enemies, it’s usually better to refrain from violence. Almost every action in combat depletes a stamina bar, and if characters lose all their stamina, they can’t perform any action during the next turn, which can mean death if the wrong threat appears on-screen.

The game’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, Alder’s Blood shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of the game. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. In Alder’s Blood, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics title, implying that a godless world should not be coveted.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by No Gravity Games.

Developer: Shockwork Games Publisher: No Gravity Games Platform: Switch Release Date: March 13, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Murder by Numbers Serves a Clever Mix of Plot and Puzzle-Solving

The game is a charming concoction full of endearing characters and set to a wondrous soundtrack.

4

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Murder by Numbers
Photo: The Irregular Corporation

Someone’s been murdered and there’s only one way to solve the mystery: via nonograms. Also known as picross, nonograms are grid-based logic puzzles with number clues that allow you to figure out, by process of elimination, which grid squares to fill in and ultimately form a picture. British video game developer Media Tonic’s Murder by Numbers blends those puzzles with visual novel-esque investigation sequences, creating a charming concoction full of endearing characters and set to a wondrous soundtrack.

The ‘90s-set game follows Honor Mizrahi, a newly out-of-work actress turned amateur sleuth, and SCOUT, an amnesiac flying robot who seeks her help because she played a detective on TV. The picross puzzles represent SCOUT’s visual processing system, and whenever a character gives the pair an object or SCOUT scans the environment for clues, a puzzle is triggered. Upon deciphering an image, Honor can use the resulting evidence in her conversations with the colorful cast of characters, prompting further clues or plot advancements.

Simple though it may sound, Murder by Numbers achieves a deceptively complex balance of plot and puzzle-solving primarily through its relaxed atmosphere, which keeps the puzzles from feeling like obstacles. For as often as people seem to get killed, the murders play out in that incidental, almost friendly mode of laidback case-of-the-week TV shows and paperback mysteries with groan-inducing punny titles. Likewise, the character designs are rendered in a bright, crisp anime style, and starting the game each time even prompts a faintly cheesy theme song. The resulting light tone means that no matter how many puzzles stand in Honor and SCOUT’s way, there’s never a sense that they’re interrupting the flow of the story.

Given the game’s goofy concept, the mysteries could certainly stand to be a little wackier than they are. But the storytelling manages to never feel like a flimsy, throwaway wrapper for simply solving nonograms; instead, it’s a coherent part of the whole, gifted as it is with warm, funny characters of surprising depth. Honor, for her part, has just gotten out of a disastrous marriage, and she struggles with her overbearing mother as well as the general question of where her life is headed. Even her main confidant, a flamboyant hairdresser called K.C., is more than a stock sassy gay friend, as the game makes space for his backstory of emigrating from Britain and only finding his feet in L.A. through the help of a local drag club.

Barring the occasional timed nonogram on a smaller grid, the game’s puzzles are low-stakes. Rather than being scored according to how quickly a puzzle is solved, players are simply given points for completing it. There’s an easy mode that automatically corrects errors and a couple of other assistance functions, like hitting a button to randomly fill spaces or check for mistakes. However, foregoing any such functions on the normal difficulty nets you a “difficulty” bonus to your score total, which only affects unlocking bonus puzzles. Any further challenge is mostly self-imposed, because the hints highlighting rows for your next move can be freely toggled on and off without affecting your final score.

There are a few interface hiccups, like the strange inability to remove X marks without selecting the proper function. Likewise, the “check errors” option doesn’t continue to highlight mistakes once you start making corrections, and there’s no “undo” button. But on the whole, the game moves along at a gentle hum, helped in no small part by its astonishing soundtrack. The bouncy compositions come courtesy of Masakazu Sugimori, who’s known for games like Viewtiful Joe, Ghost Trick, and the first Ace Attorney. His work is a boon particularly for a puzzle game such as this, where much of the time is spent staring at a grid while the music loops. Many of the songs are almost comedically epic in scope given the unassuming nature of the puzzle-solving, lending the simple act of filling in squares a uniquely jazzy, ostentatious power without growing monotonous, as the songs constantly move in new, undeniably catchy directions. Sugimori has done some truly impressive work here, crafting an exceptional complement to an already delightful game.

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

Developer: Mediatonic Publisher: The Irregular Corporation Platform: PC Release Date: March 6, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Tobacco Reference, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: In Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the Magic Is in the Smallest of Details

The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

4

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Wide Ocean Big Jacket

Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket gains so much of its character from the little details: the radio playing when Uncle Brad buys a pile of wood for a campfire, or the glow-in-the-dark skeleton that he and Aunt Cloanne use to mark their campsite. Their tent is a two-roomer, and Cloanne explains that they, veteran campers that they are, usually set up a little table in the additional space, for reading indoors in the middle of the outdoors. On this trip, though, the other room belongs to Brad’s 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her best friend who’s now her trial boyfriend, Ben. The kids aren’t totally sure about relationships, as they’re still in that phase of life where relationships aren’t a “real” thing yet—more of a distraction and a declaration than a commitment. But they’ve decided to give it a try.

Mord explains this relationship to Brad while they’re setting up camp, telling him that, as a way of acceptance, Ben had said it doesn’t sound “too scary.” Backstory is delivered this way throughout the game, through simple dialogue about what’s already happened. Instead of outright flashbacks to past moments, there’s only the now, the little snapshots of time the characters spend talking in their wooded setting, or the next one, or on the beach. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is broken up into 20 such vignettes, often swapping between perspectives as the characters amble around these tiny areas with their shuffly gaits that have a pleasantly jerky quality reminiscent of hand-drawn animation. Sometimes they have actions to perform, like when Cloanne watches birds through binoculars or Mord cartwheels across the sand.

Other times, you just page through the dialogue (or, in one case, the narrative of a trashy paperback) from an observer’s perspective, seeing what the characters have to say around the campfire and look at their expressions. The dialogue unspools in small snippets on simple black screens, below black-and-white drawings of the characters’ heads. Though the portraits are totally static, the screens convey a lot through simple tone and those unchanging expressions: Mord’s dead-on stare informs her quirky personality, and Ben has the bashful demeanor of a kid whose eyes you can’t quite see behind the reflection of his glasses. What might have felt limited instead seems specific, even affecting.

Turnfollow does so much with so little. Despite its unassuming art style and brief length—a little over an hour, if that—the game suggests so much beyond itself, through the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, the charming specificity it brings to the characters’ lives, and the way it cuts out of dialogue to reveal scenes like how Mord is standing on a picnic table. The characters are so vividly defined that you get the urge to play according to their behavior, whether it’s deciding which bush to pee in or whether or not to cook a whole mess of hot dogs at once on the same skewer. Wide Ocean Big Jacket bottles small moments and makes them feel important, not because they speak to some world-ending conflict, but because they’re formative: a kiss, an argument, a sighting of a pretty cool stick to wave around. The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

The game was reviewed using a digital Switch copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Turnfollow Publisher: Tender Claws Platform: Switch Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco Buy: Game

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Review: Lair of the Clockwork God Is a Fine-Tuned Comedy Machine

With their latest, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

4

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Lair of the Clockwork God
Photo: Size Five Games

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes.

Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

The game is a gold mine of comic scenarios in which the fictionalized, fourth-wall-breaking duo at its center solves novel puzzles using an intentionally haphazard control scheme. Dan’s refusal to interact with even basic objects like a light switch results in gloriously convoluted workarounds, like the one where Ben must find a way not only to reactivate a drone, but to somehow make it glow in the dark. As the game points out, Ben is essentially Dan’s platforming gimmick; instead of Dan having to seek out skill upgrades, Ben combines items from his inventory into accessories that allow Dan to double-jump or hang from walls. Lair of the Clockwork God’s hybridization of platformer and adventure conventions is more than just a successful approach to everything that Ron Gilbert was trying to do with 2013’s The Cave; it’s also a simultaneous homage and critique of the conventions of various genres, with the two protagonists mercilessly commenting on how games have evolved—or not.

Lair of the Clockwork God’s central conceit is that Dan and Ben must teach a faulty A.I. how to re-empathize with humanity. They do so by entering “constructs” (self-contained levels) that represent feelings like Grief or Fear, and each area is “beaten” once the duo has done enough to sufficiently model that emotion to the game’s titular god. This focused, vignette-like structure also allows Marshall and Ward to quickly bounce between concepts, the result of which is a game that pokes fun at everything from visual novels to virtual reality, with plenty of righteous indignation left over for walking simulators and monetization options.

Ironically, the one thing Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have much to say about is other platforming games. One of the 11 constructs, Anger, does a fine job of channeling through Dan the sort of curse-spewing, controller-flinging rage that those who’ve played masocore games like Super Meat Boy will instantly relate to. The rest of Dan’s platforming sections feel secondary to Ben’s adventuring. Whereas the inventory puzzles are given new life by Ben’s outsized attempts to puzzle his way past obstacles that Dan can simply jump over, Dan’s largely dialogue-free acrobatics feel like the interstitial stuff you have to complete to get to the next clever puzzle or bracing joke. Dan’s the straight man who sets up the jokes, as when he mantles over some ledges so that he can pop the balloon holding up a dead clown aloft. But it’s Ben who lands the comedy of those moments; his ability to Look at objects or to Use items on them provides the literal observational wit and shock humor needed to push these scenes over the edge: “I feel like pissing on a clown’s entrails wouldn’t be funny somehow.”

Everywhere else, though, Lair of the Clockwork God has plenty to say, with each new area finding a clever way to demonstrate a particular emotion. Joy, for instance, manifests for Dan as a Sonic-like Green Hills Zone filled with floating beer caps and frothy alcohol waterfalls for him to run and jump through. By contrast, Ben’s never happier than when he sets about dismantling the bureaucracy that governs the way a platformer respawns upon death.

Regardless of whether you share Ben and Dan’s nostalgia, their emotions are infectious. The scenarios they face are absurdly over the top, but their actual responses are all too relatable. Most remarkably, however, is that the game can troll players with levels like Confusion and Disappointment and lull them into thinking that Hope is nothing more than a stinging punchline, only to at the last minute show up to the table with the unexpected sincerity of Regret. As it turns out, Lair of the Clockwork God is less about teaching an A.I. what it means to be human than about providing players with examples of how to be better people.

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

Developer: Size Five Games Publisher: Size Five Games Platform: PC Release Date: February 21, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: LUNA The Shadow Dust Is Visually Dazzling but Succumbs to Monotony

Its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

2.5

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LUNA The Shadow Dust

Presented in a beautiful hand-drawn style with detailed animation and a soft color palette, LUNA The Shadow Dust suggests a storybook come to life. The main characters, a cat-like creature with a shadowy face and a boy who wears a rabbit-eared hood, wordlessly make their way through a mysterious tower. Its rooms are full of puzzles tied to intricate devices and murals from long ago, depicting patterns to follow that will let you unlock the next door. But despite the game’s considerable visual panache, its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

Throughout, you control the characters separately, initially needing one of them to complete a simple task on one end of a room that will have some effect on the other side. As the game continues, you begin to split the characters up even further, moving them into entirely separate spaces. The creature, for example, may need to stand in some ethereal void filled with trees, while the boy pulls a lever to cycle the void through different seasons. Though the initially basic puzzles grow somewhat more challenging and satisfying to complete with this degree of separation added to the mix, monotony takes hold as you watch the characters laboriously shuffle from one end of the screen to another.

The game is at its best early on, as a kind of visual tour that demands minimal effort from the player, where the puzzles are a largely inconsequential barrier to seeing the sights. The puzzle rooms’ initial layouts are economical, with small areas that hold some obvious visual clue for how to proceed. Such simplicity makes those first puzzles feel a little rote, but they’re the most effective, unintrusive vehicle for simply appreciating LUNA’s artistry.

As the game wears on, though, it introduces the aforementioned complex spaces, requiring the characters to separate for longer periods and trek up and down stairs as well as in and out the same doors. Combined with the sluggish walking cycle, the backtracking can often feel like outright punishment for not solving the progressively more involved puzzles on the first try. The very space that once seemed so breathtaking becomes easy to resent. As some of the animations and actions repeat for no discernible reason (one cart ride to gather books needs to be done a baffling four times), the gorgeous, otherwise relaxed experience begins to grate.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Application Systems Heidelberg Software GmbH.

Developer: Lantern Studio Publisher: Application Systems Heidelberg Buy: Game

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