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Review: Tacoma

Tacoma is a master class in the art of giving you the tools to experience a fascinating place through others’ eyes.

3.5

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Tacoma
Photo: Fullbright

Just like Fulbright’s last effort, the deceptively small Gone Home, Tacoma is a game that will seem straightforward only in its premise: A corporation sends a freelance retrieval expert out to the namesake space station in order to retrieve the abandoned spacecraft’s artificial intelligence, as well as gather the ship’s Alternate Reality logs, which describe the last three days of the crewmembers on board. But to reference that old Roger Ebert chestnut, what Tacoma is about isn’t nearly as vital or impressive as how it’s about it.

The ace up the Tacoma’s sleeve is its AR-log storytelling, which allows the player to walk directly into a scene among the holographic ghosts of the station’s crew and bear witness to the lives of these individuals leading up to the events that left the spacecraft abandoned. It’s a storytelling method we’ve seen before but never implemented to such an immersive and large-scale effect. Here, multiple characters and their activities organically intersect in a large area of the space station, where a motivational speech by one of the ship’s administrators might lead the player to follow said administrator’s hologram back to his or her office. Once there, you can hear the administrator confide the dismal truth about his or her job to a loved one—a tender moment that might be interrupted by a catastrophe on the other side of the station that can be followed and played back with the press of a button. Alternately, the player can poke around the administrator’s office for more personal details before rewinding to follow another group’s conversation.

The game’s pedigree as the product of the people who made Gone Home is obvious. The casual weariness that defines the “used future” sci-fi aesthetic in Tacoma also defines its characters, an important element that far too many sci-fi works tend to neglect. The game presents us with the fine details and detritus of lives well lived: who’s working out, who’s reading (and what books are being read), whose medical history may cause a problem, who left lovers behind on Earth—and all the endless variations therein are beautiful in their diversity. Freed from cinema’s narrative shackles, Tacoma luxuriates in the experiences and history and minutiae that inform every second of how the space station’s crew reacts under extreme circumstances.

Indeed, the circumstances do get extreme, but Tacoma is so one-track-minded about the words and deeds of the station’s crew that the game’s tension goes ignored. A life-threatening event is witnessed early on, and while the fact that the crew is in danger is made clear, the immediacy of that threat seems to take a backseat to the smaller conversations that would hold a more action-focused narrative together but here act as the whole of the text.

Tacoma raises heady topics during its short playtime stemming from said threat, but even an obsessive playthrough—in which you explore every nook and cranny, examine every object, and witness every AR log—will leave you quaintly curious rather than breathless. The game leaves behind a slew of unanswered questions, a pervasive sense of need-to-know-ness that it doesn’t satisfy, even though the main narrative through line is most certainly resolved by the time the credits roll. In addition, said narrative is quite predictable as far as old-school sci-fi tropes go, albeit very well executed, with one particular area’s data, at the core of the ship’s AI, providing a complete record of stone-cold corporate decision-making at its most distressing, on par with some of the more terrifying futurism at the heart of Horizon Zero Dawn.

It’s hard to find the nerve to rail too much against a game that excels where others, even in the first-person exploratory genre, have managed to flail and falter. Tacoma is a master class in interactive character work, in the art of giving you the tools to experience a fascinating place through others’ eyes. Its narrative momentum is a mildly clumsy thing, tripping on its own feet, but it’s only because the game has such undeniably brilliant ideas on its mind.

Developer: Fullbright Publisher: Fullbright Platform: PC Release Date: August 1, 2017 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: Disco Elysium Is a Shrewd Whodunit and Marvel of Open-Ended Design

The game offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.

4.5

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Disco Elysium
Photo: ZA/UM

The first dialogue exchange that occurs in Disco Elysium isn’t between you and another person, but with yourself. More specifically, it’s with “Ancient Reptilian Brain,” which speaks in a husky, swaggering snarl in an attempt to lure you back to the depths of being blackout drunk. Eventually, your limbic system chimes in. Even after you open your eyes to find an amnesiac old detective with a ghastly fashion sense staring in the mirror, you never stop talking to yourself in Disco Elysium. This is an extremely insular game, devoting as it does vast amounts of text to your internal thoughts, and in doing so it offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.

On the surface, playing the game seems traditional enough. It’s presented as a top-down role-playing game where you wander around the city of Revachol and, on its outskirts, a snowy coast with a ramshackle fishing village and an abandoned church. You, the detective, are in town to solve a murder as well as (hopefully) the mystery of whatever prompted you to go on a catastrophic bender, which blasted all memory of everything and everyone from your brain (dialogue options include asking about things like the concept of money). As in a pen-and-paper RPG, the detective’s various skills are measured against certain actions; for one, a high Endurance gives a better percent chance of not vomiting at the scent of a rotting corpse.

And the skills have voices, too, that nudge into your conversations and internal thoughts. They’re always bouncing around in your head, some skills louder and more trustworthy than others, to offer commentary and observations or even give advice; a high enough Empathy skill means you pick up on facial expressions and infer emotions, which can then inform your dialogue choices in a conversation. The Authority skill helps boss people around but also demands petty displays of fealty and respect for your occupation, while the Inland Empire skill dispenses nonsensical feelings and hunches that tend to make sense down the line: “Love killed me,” says a decomposing corpse if you pass the Inland Empire stat check to carry on a conversation with it, and hours later, further investigation reveals it to technically be true.

Playing Disco Elysium feels like having an angel and a devil on your shoulders, only you’re not sure which one is which and there’s so many of them that you don’t have nearly enough shoulders to contain them all. Maybe they’re all devils. Perhaps inevitably, the game’s pace can lag as you sort through various thought processes. There’s no traditional combat system, and much time will be taken up by simply carrying on conversations or going through actions like procuring a necktie from a ceiling fan. Things frequently spiral out of control as conversations devolve into a hilarious soup of skills screaming at you alongside a list of dialogue choices you’d rather not say—barring, perhaps, a lone thought that may go something like, “These are all ridiculous, and I don’t want to say any of them.”

The player character is an abject disaster of a human being, a man who has essentially melted his personality into primordial ooze only to have it unceremoniously cobbled back together in some vague shape of a person. Part of the fun here is failing certain skill checks, or the sense of just skirting by based on some absurd hunch. And the type of disaster you play is open to multiple interpretations. For one, apologizing to everyone for drunken behavior might label you as the dreaded Sorry Cop, one of many equippable thoughts that provide additional effects or increase skills. And sorting out the Communism thought and equipping it will provide bonus experience points when choosing left-wing dialogue options.

Of course, you don’t have to be Communist, nor do you need to be sorry all the time. The game is a marvel of open-ended design, where one set of skills might net a wholly different outcome or provide additional context. The system of skill checks and dialogue choices is always branching off in different directions, and it never feels like you’re missing opportunities so much as forging a new path; a character built around physicality, for example, may traipse through entirely different dialogue options and actions than one made to visually dissect crime scenes. Rather than some jack-of-all-trades route that lets you be the boss of everything, there’s instead an ever-unfolding series of alternate routes and methods of expression.

Disco Elysium feels almost futuristic in its design, eschewing so many of the typical story and design hang-ups of video games. It’s a bold, ambitious work that’s stripped of world-ending conflicts, while taking place on a dense yet relatively small map. Despite all the different pathways and the 30-hour playtime, it’s content with interpersonal relationships, moments of shared history and pain rather than scores of bodies left in your wake. The characters are as memorable as they are varied, from your put-upon but encouraging partner, Kim Kitsuragi, to a mysterious person known only as “the Pigs,” to the 12-year-old drug-dealing hellion throwing rocks at the corpse outside the hotel where you sleep.

Disco Elysium’s tone is relentlessly sardonic, as a reflection of its setting and the characters who inhabit it. The game is snide about everyone and everything, and sometimes it can feel aimlessly unpleasant, as in the aforementioned child whose vocabulary seems mainly devoted to (censored) homophobic slurs. But when everything clicks, it makes for an odd combination of sadness, beauty, and humor. The places you visit in Revachol are still torn apart by a long-past war, ravaged until there’s nothing left. The ideologies have fallen away and there are only disaffected people scrambling through the ruins of a society reticent to commit to anything anymore. It’s a desolate maelstrom where you learn, slowly, to exist again among people and their flaws, searching for mutual understanding with voices outside your own head.

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

Developer: ZA/UM Publisher: ZA/UM Platform: PC Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Ghostbusters: The Video Game Still Lacks Finesse in Remastered Form

The brunt of the work here has gone into raising the game’s resolution and frame rate, and implementing higher quality assets all around.

3

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Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered
Photo: Mad Dog Games

In retrospect, it was perhaps too much to expect that 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game capture the lightning in a bottle that even Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters II couldn’t back in 1989. That was the state of things before Ghostbusters as a beloved property became one of the bloodiest cultural battlegrounds of the century, all thanks to the outrageous, unthinkable, dangerous idea that maybe, just maybe, women could be Ghostbusters. Now, in the wake of that little experiment failing to set the world on fire, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is back, theoretically representing exactly what the gatekeeping Übermensch fans of the franchise said they wanted, and loudly so, in 2016: the original cast, working off a script from Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, with all the stuff they liked from the original, minus a Rick Moranis or Sigourney Weaver cameo or two. And 10 years have only accentuated everything that’s fascinating and frustrating about this approach.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game takes place in 1991, two years after the whole Vigo the Carpathian business from Ghostbusters II. When the story begins, a museum exhibit on Gozer the Gozerian sends out a pulse of energy that seems to bring a huge influx of new and old ghosts back to New York City. With the Ghostbusters’ mayhem now fully subsidized by Gracie Mansion, our heroes can afford to bring on some help. They do so in the form of a new, voiceless sap—that’d be your player character—who’ll be testing out some of Egon’s experimental gear while lending a hand cleaning up the town. That concept is sound, but the execution needs finesse that the game just doesn’t provide, even in its remastered form.

In particular, the mute player character is one of those gaming tropes that needs to go away forever, but even then, a lot could’ve been forgiven if you were allowed to customize your character in any way instead of being stuck with Generic Milquetoast White Guy #247916. It’s worth noting here that that’s a minor advantage that the Wii and PS2 ports of the game had over their big brothers: You couldn’t customize, but you could at least pick a female character. Those two ports also sported a more stylized cartoon aesthetic that actually made for a much more freewheeling and loose experience, where this version’s lackluster attempt at realism in the character models invites scrutiny that does the game zero favors. An option to switch between the art styles, if not a complete overhaul of the in-game graphics, would have made a world of difference in making this remaster feel like an expansive, all-encompassing archival effort. Suffice it to say, that kind of effort didn’t happen here.

The brunt of the work here has gone into raising the game’s resolution and frame rate, and implementing higher quality assets all around. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and there are plenty of environments like the firehouse, the famous Sedgewick Hotel, Times Square, and the ghost dimension that do manage to impress. But there’s only so much a developer can do to polish up elements that already looked mediocre in 2009 with a graphical boost. Ultimately, Mad Dog Games’s lack of extra attention to everything beyond aesthetics means that the gameplay has no choice but to shine. Which, surprisingly, it does.

If there’s any one thing that Ghostbusters: The Video Game got right from the day it dropped in 2009, it’s that all the bustin’ it has you do feels incredibly good. The core mechanics of laying into ghosts with a proton pack, sending out a trap, and wrangling a ghost into it is laid out in almost Gears of War-lite fashion. You just don’t get the comparative safety of a cover system or, really, much in the means of protection at all. You’re just some weak-chinned schmuck carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator. You can be thrown down easily just from a ghost flying through you fast enough, which does, admittedly, make for some cheap hits along the way, especially in a particularly aggravating stretch that takes place in a graveyard. But the game perfectly captures a crucial, under-sung element of the films: being a working-class nerd who, as part of a team, has to put actual strenuous effort into capturing ghosts.

Indeed, the game’s at its best when it leans into this just being another day, another dollar for the Ghostbusters, only with different ghosts, instead of trying too hard to live up to the player’s nostalgia with constant callbacks and references to the first film. The original cast is extremely present and doing heroic work trying to elevate the script, but so much of the game exudes a been-there-done-that feel. Whatever the problems with both Ghostbusters II and the 2016 reboot of the 1984 film, the one big takeaway is that the very idea of ghostbusters, as a premise to hinge an entire story upon, benefits from each new entry refusing to simply reiterate and regurgitate the iconic scenes and set pieces from the original film.

The stories we learn about the game’s ghosts through PKE scans are fantastic, nuanced, detailed tales that even weave in a bit of real New York City history and paranormal concepts (interestingly, both this and the 2016 film smartly use the idea of NYC’s grid geography to create ley lines). As such, it’s a bit of a shame how little the game does to make Ghostbusters’s lore into something different and better, which, actually does make the fact that the remaster does very little for the game as a whole pretty appropriate.

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

Developer: Saber Interactive Publisher: Mad Dog Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost Recon Breakpoint Abounds in Mindless Fetch Quests and Dull Action

There are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, but none of them are particularly engaging.

1.5

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Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Photo: Ubisoft

The last line spoken in Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s main campaign is meant to be a serious question: As your character, codenamed Nomad, looks out over the semi-liberated archipelago of Auroa, he or she asks, “All right, what’s next?” But, in reality, the question exposes how little there actually ever was to look forward to in Breakpoint. Players are as free to continue exploring Auroa as they’ve been from the beginning, so what’s next is the same as what’s been next for the previous 30 hours: more shooting and looting.

Despite the diversity of the 21 districts on Auroa and the various biomes you’ll encounter as you travel from flat swamplands to snowy mountains and deep jungles, Breakpoint adheres to a sadly repetitive structure. A target will be identified, you’ll locate said target, and then you’ll kill anyone who gets in your way. For a bit of variety, you can swap between classes, playing as a long-range Sharpshooter, stealth expert Panther, head-on Assault, or group-healing Medic, but because every mission can be completed the same way, it rarely makes a difference.

Even recon, which should be the bread-and-butter of this franchise, is taken scarcely more seriously than in 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands; the optional Exploration mode forces players to manually find each mission by following geographic descriptions. But once you’ve reached them, yellow dots pop up to show you exactly what you need to do, obviating the need for all that photographic intel you collect. Occasionally, you may have to leave one enemy alive as you infiltrate the area they’re stationed in, so that you can interrogate them for more information, but, in essence, the game’s core loop comes down to scouting, shooting, and salvaging. It’s a series of mindless fetch quests, punctuated by dull combat.

Where other open-world games deliver on the fantasy and immediacy of amusement-park rides, Breakpoint establishes the crippling logistics of visiting the theme park itself. In Just Cause 4, you get a physics-defying grappling hook and perform roller-coaster-like stunts; in Breakpoint, you send up your reconnaissance drone to mark all of the targets in an area and, only after planning everything, can you start the “fun” of killing them. In Far Cry New Dawn, you solve environmental puzzles and sometimes face the sort of disorienting designs you’d find in a funhouse; in Breakpoint, you emulate patiently waiting in line as you queue up the fast-travel menu to the nearest bivouac, set up a campsite, change your loadout, call in a vehicle, and drive to your next sortie. Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with divertissements like hunting and gambling; Breakpoint, at best, emulates an arcade’s shooting gallery.

The first few hours of Breakpoint are its boldest, as your underpowered and outgunned character’s chopper is shot down over the archipelago of Auroa. There are immediate personal stakes, given that the mission appears to have been betrayed by a former ally, Lt. Col. Cole D. Walker (Jon Bernthal). There’s also a real element of danger in the arrival of Walker’s elite Wolves, whose high gear levels make this one of the rare times in the game which a stealthy retreat is recommended, and where you’ll want to drop to the ground and use stealth camo to hide from the tracking Azrael drones that occasionally fly overhead. After appropriating a vehicle, Nomad can use visual clues to reach the friendly base of Erewhon, where many of the locals hid following the private military coup that led to the techtopia of Auroa being cut off from the outside world (and your team being sent in to investigate).

But the nonlinear structure that follows from this point ensures that nothing is able to change from that point, either in story or core gameplay. The only character with a lick of development is Walker, who gets scene-chewing flashbacks meant to justify his hatred for a corruptible U.S. military. Defensive Mads Shulz and terrorist Haruhi Ito, the respective leaders of the island’s two resistance factions, exist almost entirely to dispense daily missions. And while one mission might take place in a coastal villa designed to attract elite investors while another might be set in an underground Cold War bunker retrofitted as a data-processing center, you’ll use the same tools to clear them. Progression can be oddly wonky as well. For one, you might find yourself being asked to return a citizen from an overrun camp, even if you just cleared it out minutes ago. And if you die, there’s no telling where you’ll reload, as it could be hundreds of meters away, or directly in a guard’s sights.

Breakpoint’s fixed nature is at direct odds with its open-world design, and ultimately results in a game that less about realism than it is about imposing limits. Only certain guards can call for reinforcements, and enemies that are “on alert” will continue to march directly toward the sound of gunfire, even if that means thoughtlessly climbing over the corpses of their predecessors, directly into a kill corridor. Worse, the game expects players to act as inorganically as the AI. The only way past a chainlink fence is with a craftable laser cutter, the final battle must be fought at close range, and should you dare to kill the sniper Rosebud from a distance, you’ll inexplicably fail on account of being too far from your objective. There’s no emergent gameplay here, there’s just a rigid set of often unseen rules, and while there are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, none of them are particularly engaging.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Mild Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Is One Giant Leap for the Bungie Series

This expansion marks a sea change for the series, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast.

4

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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Photo: Bungie

With Bungie consciously uncoupled from Activision, and, reportedly, with no small amount of cheers and champagne from the developers, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is in the unenviable position of having to assert a somehow “truer,” better vision of Destiny by taking full advantage of Bungie’s master-less status. That’s not necessarily fair to this expansion, which is, at the moment, content to represent just one more small step for Destiny as an ongoing narrative. The haphazard and daring house that is Destiny remains exactly that, but Shadowkeep has done some major and vital repairs to the foundation. Against all modern logic for this kind of game, and the last two years of Destiny 2, it seems as if Bungie actually intends for its players to—brace yourself—enjoy playing it.

Shadowkeep reflects a fascinating hyper-focus on the mistakes of the past, both on the part the game’s characters and Bungie itself. On the narrative side, the story has the Tower’s broody mystic, Eris Morn, sending up a distress call on the Moon, after stumbling across a pyramid buried beneath the surface. Once activated, the pyramid starts raising apparitions of long-dead friends and enemies across the solar system. Eris herself is haunted by the Fireteam that failed to save her before she was tortured and mutilated. You, on the other hand, are besieged by the ghosts of Destiny expansions past: Crota, Omnigul, the Fanatic, and more. All the while, the ghosts of dead Guardians float limply in the atmosphere all around the Moon, lamenting their fate, screaming for help, and calling for backup that won’t come.

That Bungie managed to make a haunted moon so incredibly unsettling, and in a world where “Moon’s Haunted” is a still popular meme, is impressive in and of itself. And that helps, given that it’s the framework holding together what’s essentially still the old Destiny song and dance of an NPC needing special artifacts from a deep, dark, and dangerously infested place, in exchange for, hopefully, better guns and armor. Bungie has always been good at that part—the very craft of putting us in daunting situations that feel exhilarating to fight our way out of using the fatal flash and flair at our disposal. Aside from some smarter enemy placement and a new finishing move system that’s mechanically reminiscent of 2016’s Doom in the best possible way, that’s the part where Destiny simply stays the course. It’s in being prepared to fight these fights and keeping them interesting hour after hour, day after day, week after week that Bungie has struggled. And it’s here that Bungie has done the most work on itself.

Shadowkeep completely overhauls and streamlines Destiny 2’s loot system, while breaking up the benefits provided by each piece of gear into easy-to-parse RPG stats, governing each aspect of your Guardian in combat. So much more of the power to build a character is now in the player’s hands as opposed to being enslaved to the lucky drop, which has been the bane of the Destiny franchise since day one. Now, enhancing gear is a matter of owning the modification you want, and having the pittance of Glimmer—Destiny’s simplest and long-neglected currency—required to apply it. Infusing is a bit more of an involved process, but now it’s centered around two easy-to-obtain ingredients instead of five annoying ones. Shadowkeep’s intent truly shows itself as you come up against the game’s current soft level cap of 900, which is typically the point where Destiny settles into an interminable grind until new content finally releases. In this case, however, this is the point where the game blossoms.

It needs to, in fairness, as Shadowkeep’s cinematic story content ends somewhat abruptly, albeit on a foreboding note. It feels like what Bungie was going for with the first game’s climax-but-not-really. After Shadowkeep’s ending, dedicated strikes against the undead bosses of old are unlocked. You obtain new challenges for exotic weapons that actually tell full-fledged stories about their curation or creation. A new public activity becomes available—complete with a beautifully terrifying cinematic that plays the next time you start the game—that has you fending off a Vex invasion, though unlocking that activity is the worst-explained part of the expansion. All of it is in favor of preparing you to face whatever may wind up emerging from that pyramid sooner than later, and the game does a grand job of not just showing you how to prepare but giving you good motivating reasons to do so.

The guiding principles behind every decision made in Shadowkeep keep players engaged not through monotony, but through legitimate engagement with a ridiculous bounty of options. One should hesitate to place the entirety of Destiny’s flaws on Activision, but without a doubt, this expansion marks a sea change for the franchise, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast. Shadowkeep doesn’t have a true ending, but it’s damn gratifying to know that, this time, it’s because the best might be yet to come.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by the Amplifier Group.

Developer: Bungie Publisher: Bungie Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 2, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Indivisible Conjures Up Nostalgia Without Being Derivative

Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

3.5

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Indivisible
Photo: 505 Games

Ajna, the impetuous 16-year-old martial artist at the center of Indivisible, has an odd mystic power: She can absorb her allies and carry them around with her in her Inner Realm, so as to call upon them when needed for advice or aid in battle. The game itself operates by a similar modus operandi, in that it’s absorbed a variety of disparate elements, all of which the developers at Lab Zero Games have mashed together in an attempt to create something entirely new and somehow more than the sum of its parts. While Indivisible doesn’t always succeed at combining its RPG and Metroidvania elements, the developer’s attention to small details ensures that these pieces are always at least separately entertaining.

The many ways in which Indivisible builds upon the elements it borrows from helps it to conjure up nostalgia without being derivative. The combat, which assigns each of your party members to one of your controller’s four face buttons, stems from Valkyrie Profile but is more varied here due to the mechanically unique heroes—everything from a revolver-wielding marksman to a trap-setting ninja. Elsewhere, the game’s combo-heavy platforming calls to mind challenges from Guacamelee, only with an even wider variety of tools, like body-swapping arrows. And as for Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack, it evokes the calming rhythms of his classic Secret of Mana score but frequently moves in surprising ways. All of these things thematically link to Ajna’s own journey, in which she eventually learns to work with and grow from her friends, as opposed to always just brute-force attacking everything.

The world of Loka, like Indivisible, has a little bit of everything. For one, a Buddhist temple sits adjacent to an Aztec ruin, an Arabian oasis, and a contemporary red-light district awash in neon signage and drugs. Throughout, you’ll have to do a good deal of backtracking between these locations, as the platforming abilities required to complete one region are generally learned by progressing through another one. But the sense of repetition never really sets in due to the combat and level designs pulsing with so much personality and charm. That’s evident in the novel battle mechanics, like those of one character who rides a dive-bombing bird, as well as in the game’s visual flair, like a piece of fan art hidden in a nightclub owner’s office, and the comedic one-liners, like a milk-divining prophet’s insults.

But in trying to avoid repetition, especially with its large cast of playable characters, Indivisible sometimes gets needlessly gimmicky. For instance, if you put Lanshi in your party, you can pet him during combat to generate energy for the team. But while this works as an obvious nod to the popular Twitter account @CanYouPetTheDog, it’s not a particularly useful skill in combat, which largely revolves around chaining together direct attacks as opposed to idly generating buffs. By contrast, given that you’re simultaneously controlling four characters, the sporty Hunoch and his undead twin, Xiboch, require too much active attention, since they fight by rebounding a disc off of foes, Pong-style. Then again, with 20 characters to choose from, you’re never stuck with an uncomfortable playstyle, and one player’s gimmick might be another’s secret weapon. Tactical players may be drawn to Nuna for her botanical landmines, which sprout up to entangle enemies that step on them, while bruisers may stick with Shieldmaiden Qadira, whose bonus attacks allow her to single-handedly combo enemies.

Indivisible’s combat, story, and exploration are independently enjoyable, but they rarely feel like parts of the same game. Outside of a few boss fights that task players with dodging attacks in a platforming section before clashing in the turn-based combat, these two elements are largely disconnected, to the extent that there’s an entire dungeon consisting only of acrobatic leaps without so much as a single enemy encounter. And while it’s always fun to try out new characters, the game’s second half is so unbalanced and easy that there’s little reason to master their various moves when mindless button mashing works just as well.

This lack of cohesion, though, is disappointing only in regard to how it tears at the game’s larger thematic fabric. Ajna’s growth, after all, is all about accepting and incorporating all of the elements she’s absorbed, and Indivisible never really requires players to do the same. That’s because it leaps between great ideas, such that what starts out as an RPG with platforming elements later becomes a Metroidvania with turn-based battles. Thankfully, this shift in focus in no way diminishes either component. Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

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

Developer: Lab Zero Games Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: The Surge 2 Is a Blast to Play, Though It’s Prone to Hand-Holding

For all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues.

3.5

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The Surge 2
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Players begin The Surge 2 in a deliberately disorienting fashion. Your character, a plane crash survivor, has just awaken from a two-month-long coma. A voice in your head warns that “they’re” coming to kill you, and with the use of two nearby defibrillator paddles as a makeshift weapon, you must immediately fend off sentry drones. But for both better and worse, the mystery behind your circumstances is quickly revealed, as the game uses friendly civilians to explain that you’re in the dystopian mega-city of Jericho City and that a nanotech plague has led to a quarantine. You always know exactly where you’re supposed to go, and why, and though the city is somewhat open for exploration, high-level enemies and pathways that require specialized equipment serve to funnel you through each area.

Although its precisely timed counter-heavy combat and interconnected, shortcut-filled exploration borrow heavily from the Dark Souls playbook, The Surge 2 is otherwise a significantly more straightforward game. In addition to your objectives being clearly recorded in your logbook, your character can equip a wide variety of cybernetic implants that make combat easier. If you’re having trouble reading your opponents’ physical cues, you can utilize an augment that adds a directional arrow to your screen to show you exactly where attacks are coming from. And if you keep hitting the wrong limb on an enemy, severing its chest when you’re trying to salvage an arm, you can also install a chip for that.

Even the game’s loading screen is profoundly helpful, as it displays a tourist’s map to the various districts of Jericho City. Since this is the image that you’ll be staring at each time your character falls in battle, death essentially helps to reorient the player. You can absolutely still get lost in the game’s tense, rhythmic battles or Jericho City’s labyrinthine alleyways and ruinous buildings, but for the most part, The Surge 2 provides clear, meaningful goals and a series of constant, albeit small, achievements that help to alleviate the punishing difficulty.

It’s this sense of making incremental gains that makes The Surge 2 such a blast to play. As is standard for hardcore Dark Souls-like games, when you die you drop all of your currency—here called scrap—and have one chance to make it back from your respawn point to your death location to recollect it. But The Surge 2 goes even further than its predecessor in adding quality-of-life improvements that help mitigate the risks you take: You can bank unspent currency at any MedBay, safely storing it for later; you can unlock an abundance of shortcuts, which helps to cut down on unwanted backtracking; and, most importantly, you can always use the game’s gory, slow-motion limb-severing mechanic to harvest new tools from your enemies, which ensures that you’re always getting something from even old foes. Dying is less of a failure if it nets you a new weapon, or allows you to gather schematics and raw parts. If your current equipment isn’t doing the trick, it won’t take long for you to mix, match, and upgrade to a new set of helmets, chests, arms, and legs that better serve your playstyle.

The Surge 2 also has a lot more environmental variety than the original game. Jericho City is filled with encampments of human survivors, each of which reflects a very different sort of response to the nanotech disaster. For instance, entrepreneurs eke out a living in what remains of the Seaside Court mall, doctors attempt to feed and clothe children in the tented evacuation site that rests atop an abandoned highway, and a bunch of rich, well-connected socialites host a decadent End of the World party in the swanky bar of a high-rise hotel. In addition to the checkpointed city streets, which are occupied by overzealous, trigger-happy soldiers, the waterlogged district of Port Nixon has been overrun by a religious, machine-worshipping cult, and the nature preserve at Gideon’s Rock is filled with opportunistic stealth-suit-wearing mercenaries looking to score a quick bounty or two.

That said, for all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues. The game’s a graphical mess, with textures failing to load, and a general fuzziness to everything when in the lower-resolution Performance Mode. (Even the upgraded PlayStation 4 Pro has trouble smoothly handling the better visuals of Quality Mode.) Certain environments, like the neon-irradiated gloom of a power plant that’s been transformed into a church, have an ambient glare that makes it hard to clearly make out one’s character in combat. Others, like the nanite-infested sewer tunnels, are too dark, even with your exosuit’s lights on. Worst of all is the game’s errant collision detection; occasionally, your character will get stuck against a wall and instantly die.

The further into The Surge 2 players make it, the more abilities they gain for navigating the city: an EMP blast opens electronic locks and restarts magnetic lifts, a grappling hook allows glorified zip-lines to be rappelled up and down, and fast travel is enabled between the non-combat regions. Inversely, the easier it becomes to get around, the less the game asks you to do so. Dedicated players can wander off the blinkered path, but the sidequests are neither compelling nor rewarding enough to encourage this. The last act of the game is literally a molten path of destruction painted across the city that strongly urges players to proceed directly to their final destination. The Surge 2 offers a temporary jolt of entertainment, but after a dozen hours, it’s a desperate sprint to the end before it runs out of juice entirely.

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

Developer: Deck 13 Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 24, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Is an Enchanting Remake

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour.

4

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The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Photo: Nintendo

The story of Nintendo, as a publisher and a developer, can be told solely by the Zelda titles released during each generation of console. With that in mind, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is telling a much different story about the Switch than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but probably a more accurate one. So much of the Switch’s library is about bringing the neglected past—be it design ideas, genres, or just the more simplistic mechanical joys of the old days of gaming—into the present, all dressed up, and ready to go anywhere players want. The lovely, quirky little delicacy that is Link’s Awakening makes much more sense as the second Zelda title on the platform in that context.

First released on the good old brick-sized Game Boy with the spinach-green screen, Link’s Awakening is something of a conceptual bridge between the original game’s quaint screen-by-screen exploration and the ambitious scope of its bigger brother, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, on the SNES. Here, Link is stranded on a deserted island and forced to gather a bunch of magical instruments loud enough to awaken the spirit of an entity called the Wind Fish, which lays dormant in an egg on top of the highest mountain of the island. There’s a couple of last-minute twists, but it’s probably one of the easiest Zelda titles to lose the plot of.

Still, it’s a testament to just how immaculate the original top-down formula for Zelda is that Link’s Awakening has been ported to the Switch with absolutely no changes to its level design, enemy placement, or mechanics and the game still feels just as appealing and vital as it did 26 years prior. What little has aged for Link’s Awakening as a game—some obtuse puzzles, and the occasional poorly explained breadcrumb leading players to their next objective—still feeds into the game’s most addictive hook: the simple joy of sending young Link adventuring into new places and having him find new friends, enemies, or hilarious weirdoes hiding around every corner of the map, and in the process bringing him closer to his ultimate goal.

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour, from the adorable way that Link swipes his sword to the Flintstone-y patter of his feet when he gets a running start. The addition of side-scrolling 2D passages inside dungeons has more in common with Mario games than the black-sheep experiment that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and while a full game consisting of these areas might be stilted and awkward, these quick passages never outstay their welcome. On the Switch, the game is an endless cavalcade of enchantment, and Nintendo, wisely, hasn’t tried to fix what isn’t broken, only present it to a new generation of kids and kids-at-heart.

The only major change to Link’s Awakening with this Switch port is the look of it all: the swapping out of the primitive pixels of the Gameboy version for an utterly magical stop-motion aesthetic that suggests a Rankin/Bass Zelda Christmas special, which makes the game’s gentle charms all the more effective. Other than that, the game has mostly gotten quality-of-life improvements. The Switch not being limited to only two buttons on its controller means that many of the logistic problems of the Game Boy version—like having to manually equip one item at a time to perform simple tasks of traversal—are nonexistent here. People who’ve put years of play into the original game will be able to waltz through Link’s Awakening on the Switch in mere hours, with none of the logistical hassles tripping them up.

Ironically, it’s the elements tacked onto the game that wind up sticking out like a sore thumb. A color-themed dungeon from the DX re-release of the game is possibly too cute and gimmicky for its own good, and a new side quest involving building a new dungeon is half-baked and monotonous, when it should have been the Zelda equivalent of Mario Maker. Both are optional distractions from a game that, by design, has no choice than to keep players on task, looking to use newly discovered abilities to move forward. Comparing Link’s Awakening to Breath of the Wild, the latter showed there’s still so much more this series—Nintendo, even—is capable of. The former is proving just how much they can do with so little.

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

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 20, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Contra: Rogue Corps Cannot Outgun Its Classic Predecessors

Perhaps its efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges.

2

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Contra: Rogue Corps
Photo: Konami

Known for its relentless pace, high difficulty, and over-the-top machismo, the Contra series has been unapologetic about its action identity for more than 30 years, to the point where the manual for 2007’s Contra 4 mocked the very notion of save points. Contra: Rogue Corps, by contrast, features a save system, gear upgrading, level gaining, and a hub in which players can access various game modes and features, including upcoming DLC. In short, it offers the whole industrialized shebang. And so, this latest Contra feels as if it lacks an identity altogether—other than the sense that it’s obviously, tediously modern.

Set years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars, Rogue Corps allows you to select from one of four characters, including a giant minigun-wielding panda. As always, the goal is to blast a plethora of enemies throughout, with a more significant opponent waiting for you at the end of each mission. Unlike Contra III and the other mainline entries in the series, the camera’s main position here is a top-down angle, though the perspective will shift to over-the-shoulder from time to time, and the game utilizes a twin-stick shooter control scheme. Also different is the general stage design. While Contra built its reputation on aggressive run-and-gun action, Rogue Corps is more akin to 2016’s Doom, where a level tends to funnel the player toward individual arena battles that, once completed, unlock new paths.

This type of structuring isn’t inherently bad, but Rogue Corps doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy with it. The environments aren’t very dynamic; the occasional destructible fuel barrels and sudden door openings are more than expected at this point. And the way the game leans on familiar mechanics makes the proceedings feel predictable. For one, there’s a dodge maneuver, one of the most timeworn of gaming conventions, that you’re supposed to spam in order to escape enemy crowds, maintain distance, and stun individual threats. And like several of the “stronger” foes in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, many of the bosses here can’t overcome that tried-and-true diagonal dodge that places the hero right behind the baddie, the soon-to-be recipient of much, much damage. Your adversaries’ limited attack patterns can also be recognized and memorized quickly, which leads to monotonous bouts of attrition.

Rogue Corps desperately wants to appear hip to its target audience. The audio more than confirms this pandering approach, with plenty of glibly voice-acted, profanity-littered dialogue, an odd turn for a franchise that up to this point has preferred to let the action do most of the talking. Although you’ll hear a classic Contra melody here and there, the music usually becomes tense in a Metal Gear Solid sort of way during pivotal battles, and the lightly jazzy track that plays at the game’s main hub sounds like it came straight out of Persona 5. That’s a pity, as the scores to the best Contra titles are intent on keeping your blood pumping with a masculine fury, and without reminding you of other games’ musical compositions.

Perhaps Rogue Corps’s efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges. Judging by the content of this release, the bosses are as recyclable as plastic water bottles. One level’s map is practically a carbon copy of a prior one, only with more (of the usual) threats to extinguish. And be prepared to constantly switch between two weapons, whose tendency to overheat means that being conservative with firepower is often the best way to win out. Rogue Corps hopes that everyone likes it, and wishes to achieve this by implementing ideas that can be easily tested and approved by modern fans. Which is to say that the uncompromising design that made the original Contra a formative touchstone is missing in action.

Developer: Konami, Toylogic Publisher: Konami Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Borderlands 3 Is a First-Person Shooter with No Point of View

The game is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

2.5

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Borderlands 3
Photo: 2K Games

Futuristic settings in many works of fiction often exist for creators to reflect on the present, but Borderlands 3 takes that approach much too literally. Instead of commenting on modern-day America, the game essentially just mirrors it, wrongly thinking that an exaggerated tone is a suitable substitute for an actual opinion. This makes for shotgun satire that’s loud but scattershot. Borderlands 3 is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

Over the course of nearly 100 missions designed primarily as loot-delivery systems, you’ll meet a stand-in for Tommy Wiseau at the Sin-A-Plex, overload a bandwidth-throttling CPU by uploading “dank” memes, and kill the murderous carnival hosts Penn and Teller, err, Pain and Terror. Yes, that’s Penn Jillette’s voice, and he’s joined by a bunch of outstandingly over-the-top voice actors, but no aspect of Borderlands 3 is ever really saying anything of import. It’s all just endless references to popular culture, which is why you get random side missions that just mash together a panoply of things, like the one where you enter a Bachelor-like dating competition that’s decided with a Fortnite-like battle royale. There’s plenty of first-person shooting and punching, but very few punchlines, unless you count the forlorn last words of slain foes, such as “I never took up painting!” and “Jokes on you…I was in massive debt!”

After three games—four if you count the non-FPS Tales from the Borderlands—the Borderlands series really might not have anything left to say, even if it does offer you the opportunity to choose between four new protagonists, each with their own unique action skills. There’s Zane, the Irish-accented Operative who has the ability to swap places with his own digital decoy; FL4K, who permanently gets a beastly companion; Amara, who has status-afflicting Siren magic; and Moze, a mech-riding Gunner. But after a few hours, the novelty of their class mechanics wears off, making the remaining 30 hours of the game’s campaign a tedious retread of everything you’ve seen and done before in the series.

The developers at Gearbox Software do their best to avoid that franchise fatigue by finally allowing players to leave Pandora and travel to four other planets, each of which has its own enemy types and architectures. Athenas, for instance, is a monastery besieged by the shield-heavy miscreants of the Malawan corporation, and Eden-6’s bayou is infested by fleshy saurians. Pandora has wide open deserts that are perfect for vehicular combat missions—even if the game’s rigid controls make driving through those environs remarkably unfun—while Promethea, Atlas’s corporate homeworld, is a narrow grid of urban streets and high-rises. But if interplanetary travel is handled well in Destiny and Mass Effect, insofar as each of the planets in those games feels uniquely alien, the whole Borderlands 3 galaxy shares the same pottycore mise-en-scène. No matter where you go, you’re still scrounging for loot in toilets, teaming up with underwear-clad characters, and taking shit from foul-mouthed villains.

It’s a shame, because there’s a sense that underneath all this more-is-more fan service—just about every character who’s survived a prior Borderlands game plays some role in this one—there’s a deeper, less-cartoonish story than the one it provides about Troy and Tyreen, the murderous twins who’ve used their violent livestreaming to appeal to and unite Pandora’s bandits. Their antagonistic antics are dulled by repetition, so much so that it’s jarring to see Tyreen suddenly get serious in the game’s final act, set on a long-lost alien planet. Then again, even here at the end of the galaxy, the game still makes room for two bickering robot butlers and a “homeopathological” doctor, which suggests that while the series’s overarching plot is capable of expanding and maturing, the game’s tone is incapable of growing up.

Even the things that Borderlands 3 dwells on, like gunplay, end up feeling unfocused. That comes, in part, from the game’s intent on advertising “over a billion guns,” a feat achieved only by counting the tiniest statistical shifts between otherwise identical weapons as a difference. Because you’re always out-leveling gear into obsolescence, you can’t just focus on one type of weapon, as you have to be flexible in shifting between whatever randomly comes your way.

Do you want a small-caliber pistol that deals armor-destroying damage and is manufactured by the Children of the Vault, and as such doesn’t need to be reloaded? Too bad, here’s a long-range sniper rifle that has to charge each shot, deals flesh-melting incendiary damage, and was made by Hyperion, which provides a damage-boosting shield when aimed. There’s no guarantee you can play the way you prefer, or that you’ll have the right gear for a tricky boss, and attempting to micromanage one’s unreasonably small inventory slows the game’s fast pace to a crawl. (It’s worth noting, too, that you can’t pause in co-op; if you attempt to find a safe place to sort through your gear when in a squad, you’ll likely be left behind.)

In the course of mercilessly mocking everything, Borderlands 3 inevitably opens fire on itself, in a mid-game side mission involving the dudebro adrenaline-junkie Chadd. His quest perhaps too well encapsulates the game’s target demographic, as well as its gameplay; essentially, Chadd loves danger and stunts, and is constantly throwing himself into foes or off of cliffs, instantly dying and then waiting around for you to revive him. In turn, much of the game focuses exclusively on careening around enemy-filled arenas, filling the screen with massive explosions and color-coded status damages until you win (or die) in a colorful cacophony of action that you can’t clearly see. Borderlands 3 hurdles over this extremely low bar that it sets for itself, but like the game itself in regard to just about everything, that’s not saying much.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 2K Games.

Developer: Gearbox Software Publisher: 2K Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Inense Violene, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Daemon X Machina Takes the Exhilaration Out of Piloting a Mech

All that’s cool about flying a mech has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible.

2

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Daemon X Machina
Photo: Nintendo

In retrospect, the dog should’ve been the first clue. Once you get to control Daemon X Machina’s customizable human character—who all but vanishes into the background after you’ve created it—you’ll find a pooch standing by one of the kiosks in the mech garage where you start missions and perform upgrades. The dog will follow you around, but there’s no way to pet it, and no way to interact with any other being unless they send you an email or you start a mission. This is a game with a social space that has a poor sense of being social.

Daemon X Machina is a mech game where all that’s cool about flying a giant world-saving robot has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible. Aside from that dog, the next inkling you get that something is off about the game is the sheer fact that you’re thrown into a far-future world where cartoonishly gruff mercenaries spout terms and references to in-universe events and conflicts before you have even the slightest clue of who you are, and what exactly has happened to the world.

Eventually, enough breadcrumbs are dropped during in-game dialogue for you to piece things together, and an early cutscene does show that part of the moon broke off and slammed into the Earth, triggering some sort of extinction-level event that had the secondary effect of turning our planet’s artificial intelligence robots against us. A few human survivors, though, developed special powers, allowing them to pilot mechs whose sole job it is to quell the AI rebellion. The game doesn’t come close to rising to the level of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but anime-style mech stories have rarely, if ever, needed more than this to make an impression.

The problem is entirely in the execution, as the bulk of Daemon X Machina’s plot has to be gleaned from the motormouth CPU pilots who fight alongside you in the early missions. And if you’re still trying to figure out which button equips weapons to different arms while someone is explaining how mercenary factions operate, you’re entirely out of luck. It also doesn’t help matters that, once you’ve fully grasped what’s going on in Daemon X Machina, the story settles into a mediocre merry-go-round of stock anime characters blathering on about their duty, internal politics, and long-standing grudges between missions—drama that’s impossible to care about since most of these characters will appear for one stage, then disappear for the next two or three hours of gameplay. Underwhelming characters and dialogue can be generally ignored but not when there’s such an overwhelming abundance of both at all times.

Nothing would’ve been as effective at muting the narrative problems than the core gameplay being stellar, and sadly, it isn’t. You’re allowed to fully customize every aspect of your human character, your mech, and the weaponry you carry into battle, but what should’ve inspired fond memories of games like Virtual-On, MechWarrior, or even Titanfall mostly brings back painful memories of Bioware’s Anthem. You can glide across the ground, fly through the air, and carry three types of weaponry into battle. But despite a vast arsenal of guns, melee weapons, and missiles available to the player to buy or loot from fallen enemies, very few of them are exhilarating to use during the first half of Daemon X Machina; actually selecting and switching them around is a pain thanks to a highly unintuitive UI, and only a scant few are even effective against the game’s most annoying and prevalent enemies.

Even just your basic, run-of-the-mill assault rifle has to struggle to fire on one specific target, and what passes for lock-on targeting is just a red square that tells you where your next shot will go. There are powerups you can buy and develop, as well as, weirdly, an ice cream shop where every scoop gives you performance enhancements, but the gains provided are paltry. Eventually, some of the cooler higher end weapons do start to make gains in terms of effectiveness, but the promise that Daemon X Machina becomes somewhat more tolerable after some 15-to-20 hours of gameplay is a hard pill to swallow.

Ultimately, the best part of Daemon X Machina boils down to the very simple act of collecting new mech pieces and putting together an impressive-looking custom build. It’s the one joy that doesn’t have a rather annoying price of entry, but it’s also a joy you could get faster just by walking to the local anime shop and buying a Gundam model kit.

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

Developer: Marvelous Inc. Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language Buy: Game

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