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Review: The Technomancer

The developer’s ambition to make a triple-A title without the resources of a larger studio gets the better of them.

1.0

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The Technomancer
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Mars has long been a fertile planet for storytellers, but it’s all dried up—both literally and figuratively—in The Technomancer. Spiders is a comparatively small-scale developer, and their attempt to follow in the footsteps of Mass Effect fails even harder than the company’s 2013 clone of Dark Souls, Bound by Flame. Time and again, their ambition to make a triple-A title without the resources of a larger studio gets the better of them.

Because other RPGs feature customizable weapons, so too must The Technomancer, even though this game’s paltry list of upgradable status effects—poison and electricity—makes crafting utterly unnecessary. Other titles, like The Witcher 3, allow players to set traps to aid them in combat, but given The Technomancer’s hectic combat and tight corridors, its inclusion of explosive mines, which are less likely to blow up your enemies than your own team, are nothing short of awkward. The ability to swap between weapons on the fly is meant to appeal to those who crave a more customizable approach to combat, but it results only in three unbalanced, unenjoyable battle systems. Likewise, the uninspired array of electrical powers is rendered even more impotent by the fact that many foes are resistant to them.

The Technomancer’s highlights are like stumbling upon an oasis. The game is so terrible at times that any sign of beauty—like the giant tree growing at the heart of a crater in the so-called Mutant Valley—impresses. But these stray moments do little to satisfy, especially when stretched across nearly 30 hours of static gameplay. The story itself is especially lacking, with little context ever provided for the quest. Those who haven’t played The Technomancer’s 2013 predecessor, Mars: War Logs, will be especially lost at the way this game opens by initiating Zach Mancer into the ranks of the Technomancers, only to then immediately enlist him in Abundance’s army, part of the Water War against rival corporations like Aurora.

Then again, comprehension at that macro level hardly matters when so little of what players intimately accomplish at the micro level actually factors in. Players might have to complete some third-act objectives with the shady, mob-like Vory rather than the upstanding military or idealistic opposition, depending on whom you aided earlier in the game, but the basic objectives remain the same, and there’s only ever one direct route toward completing them. The companion sidequests are the most well-written parts of the game, expanding on the eloquent mutant Phobos’s philosophy of unification and showing players the “rehabilitation” center in which Niesha was raised to be so tough. And yet, should bullshit-free mechanic Amelia learn that the eccentric scientist of the party, Scott, had a hand in the death of her father, all is forgiven by the next mission. This makes the game’s “choices” feel just as shallow as the Karmic system, which basically comes down to whether players drain their enemies of the vital fluids that pass for currency on Mars or if they spare them. No surprise, then, that the game’s overarching villain, Viktor Watcher of the Abundance Security Committee (read: secret police), is just another cardboard Hitler seeking power through purity.

All this would be problematic enough, but there are glitches everywhere. Enemies sometimes appear and disappear in the middle of combat, and most can shoot with perfect accuracy through walls. The unbalanced difficulty overwhelms players with mobs of foes, which makes one’s stealthy approach all but useless; when enemies aren’t cornering players, they’re just as likely to get caught on the environment itself. Quest-giving characters sometimes refuse to advance the narrative until players have reset the game; some persistent missions refuse to acknowledge that they’ve been completed, leaving behind objectives to clutter up the minimap. Companions sometimes profess ignorance of places they’ve literally just completed a quest within, and objectives sometimes awkwardly overlap, as when players get two distinct missions to rescue mutants from Ophir’s slave pens, each of which must be completed separately. (Did half of the mutants willingly choose to stay behind after the first escape for the sake of plot scripting?)

There’s a point at which cosmetically hilarious errors, like the way cutscenes inconsistently render whether a character is wearing a helmet or not, turn into reality-suspending problems, an issue that extends far beyond the flaccid voice acting and stiffly animated faces. The rusty machinery carved into the hidden merchant city of Noctis’s canyon walls is a nice flourish, as is the contrast between the jaded neon graffiti in Ophir’s underbelly and its more pristine above-ground streets, but these details do nothing to alleviate the repetitious backtracking through these areas. Likewise, with only a limited number of upgrade points and no way to reassign them along the four-tiered skill tree, combat increasingly revolves around one or two unbalanced abilities, and prayers that your AI companions will live long enough to keep foes off of you. These aren’t simple problems of polish for The Technomancer. They’re the wearisome result of a company trying to ration out a few good ideas in the middle of a creative drought.

Developer: Spiders Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 28, 2016 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Remnant: From the Ashes Mistakes the New for the Noteworthy

Even when the game isn’t actively shooting itself in the foot, it never entirely succeeds.

2

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Remnant: From the Ashes
Photo: Perfect World Entertainment

There’s a lot of deadwood, literal and figurative, in Remnant: From the Ashes. The literal kind stems from the plot, which tasks you with sending tree-like creatures known as the Root back into the dimension they were inadvertently, experimentally summoned from. And the figurative kind is just about everything else that stands in the way of this action shooter’s gameplay: three-player co-op with no means of communicating with your teammates; enemies that spawn directly over a downed teammate, keeping you from reviving them; and an as-yet unpatched glitch that may outright prevent you from seeing the ending.

Even when Remnant isn’t actively shooting itself in the foot, it never entirely succeeds. Melee combat exists but never feels viable against the many foes that fly, explode, or have status-afflicting auras. Because co-op unfairly increases the difficulty when a partner’s gear level is higher than your own, you’re better off tackling each region solo. And while bosses drop unique weapons, like black-hole generators and poison darts, or spell-like mods, such as summonable floating skulls and corrosion blasts, their appearances are randomized for each campaign, which makes getting what you want somewhat of a crapshoot.

When Remnant is considered in its approach, it’s compelling. Over the course of the game, you’ll unlock dozens of traits to upgrade, allowing you to customize your build far beyond the standard choice of hit points or stamina. You’ll face bosses in bespoke arenas, like Singe, a fire dragon that resides near an abandoned gas station, making the pools of oil on the ground especially hazardous, or the insectine Ixillis XV and XVI, who flutter about you as you attempt to cross a precariously narrow bridge, forcing you to make perfectly timed dodges. You’ll also travel to several diverse worlds, each with their own cultural nuances that you can suss out through too-rare scraps of lore and brief encounters with queens, rebels, and the undying.

All of this bright kindling is buried under the dross of a so-called “infinite adventure,” in which each playthrough generates different areas and bosses. But the developers at Gunfire Games mistake “new” for “noteworthy.” It’s true that no two sewers on apocalyptic Earth or caverns on swampy Corsus are identical, but it’s also true that there’s nothing to do in those dungeons. These superficially different regions are just semi-randomized pit stops between bosses. Occasionally you’ll stumble upon a variant—a pan-flute chime puzzle in the jungle world of Yaesha, a timed machine temple dungeon on desert Rhom—but for the most part, all that remains of Remnant are generic corridors and waves of foes.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Gunfire Games Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment Platform: PC ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Violence

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Review: The Apocalyptic Roguelike RAD Is More Fun in Name Than in Action

The more often you get stuck with the same items and abilities, the more redundant and shallow the game feels.

2.5

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RAD
Photo: Bandai Namco

Did you know that “rad” is not just ‘80s slang for “cool” but a unit of measurement for radiation? The developers at Double Fine aren’t the first to make that connection, but they’re certainly the first to use it as the raison d’être for a video game. Right out the gate, the studio’s top-down roguelike RAD feels half-cooked and reverse-engineered from the title’s double meaning, in that every one of its aesthetic choices can be traced back to the ‘80s, and regardless of whether they make sense within the context of a story set after not one, but two apocalypses. Throughout, you’ll encounter magical keytars, a cult known as the Cathode Raiders that’s dedicated to old-fashioned televisions, and no shortage of classic arcade cabinets that you can’t interact with. Indeed, while playing RAD, you may find yourself wondering why a character wears a bicycle helmet in a world where bikes no longer exist, or why cassette tapes are used as currency and floppy disks as loot-unlocking keys.

None of the game’s stylistic trappings inform the overall plot, which pertains to your chosen protagonist—one of eight baseball-bat wielding teens that all handle the same—being sent into the irradiated Fallow. If anything, they’re at odds with the game’s use of advanced technology, like the transference gates that warp you between levels, or the Power Nexus that you’ve been sent to fix. After a while, you get the sense that the game’s world is broken up into a series of floating islands connected by underground tunnels only because Double Fine thought that might be, well, rad. And because nothing here takes on a deeper meaning, the game’s core exploration is a joyless chore. Why bother scrounging for monuments whose revelations aren’t of great consequence? (About the Hollow Forest, the second of its three zones, RAD says only that it was “full of life, but it was the scary, bitey sort of life.”)

The game, which lends itself to much punnery, at least keeps its ‘80s paraphernalia out of the path of its fast-paced run-and-gun mechanics. Throughout, you’ll have to slay toxically transformed wildlife—like the maullusk, the slamphibian, even your fallen former “muteen” friends—and absorb their radiation in the process. Gain enough of that radiation from foes, items, and mechanical contraptions scattered across each freshly generated map and your body will begin to mutate as it randomly acquires active (Exo) and passive (Endo) abilities.

Your head, arm, and body each get a slot for an Exo mutation, and as you continue to progress through the game, soaking up rads, you’ll start looking like a child’s three-paneled match-up book, where each pane has been flipped to create a new animal hybrid. This aspect of the game isn’t only aesthetically and mechanically whole, but also an utter riot to control. The diversity of your mutations is RAD at its most interesting. On one playthrough, maybe you’ll spit poisonous venom from your cobra head, throw your barbed armarang at foes, and safely burrow into the ground with your dungeness crab body. On another, you might be a completely different chimera, with your mind-controlling brain visibly atop your skull, a literal firearm (that is, a flaming arm that belches fire), and a horse’s fast-charging body.

As far as roguelikes go, the rest of RAD is disappointingly generic. There’s a main hub that slowly grows between runs, assuming you dutifully deposit tapes into ATMs, make purchases from the local shopkeep, and help Billy (the goat, natch) tend his farm. Additionally, the overall score from each run causes new items, artifacts, weapons, characters, and “quirks” (or difficulty modifiers) to spawn. But however diverse these new abilities might be, there are only three worlds in which to use them: the desert-themed highways of the Cracked Lands, the neon-verdant biome of the Hollow Forest, and the cybernetic region that is the Devoured Expanse. You’ll be visiting the same places and fighting the same foes with only the occasional change in weather to break up the tedium, and new content doesn’t unlock nearly fast enough. Per the game’s D&D-style composition notebook (the “Tome of the Ancients”), eight hours of play was enough to reveal 97% of the enemies, but only 33% of the mutations, and not a single one of the powerful combo abilities that the loading screens alluded to.

The more often you get stuck with the same items and abilities, the more redundant and shallow RAD comes to feel. And that sense is exacerbated after you conquer the game’s final boss. It’s then that your presented with a princess-is-in-another-castle-like tease: that you’ve only revealed the first of nine endings. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if each new run didn’t feel as if you were trapped in repeat mode. To put it in lingo that the cast of RAD might understand: The increasing normalization of each playthrough is totally bogus.

Developer: Double Fine Publisher: Bandai Namco Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 20, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language, Mild Blood Buy: Game

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Review: In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Morality and Tactics Walk Hand in Hand

Fire Emblem attains an especially epic, moral grandeur with this game’s focus on the interplay between education and religion.

4.5

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Photo: Nintendo

With Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a series known for its extravagant tales of power-grabbing attains an especially epic, moral grandeur with its focus on the interplay between education and religion. As Byleth, a sword-wielding professor on the continent of Fódlan, you must teach one of three groups of students about the art of war, all in the name of serving the Church of Seiros. Depending on which class of youngsters you choose to lead (the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, or the Golden Deer), the game’s narrative, heroes, and villains change significantly. The meticulously constructed story, throughout which old friends wind up crossing blades, underlines the heartbreak that results from those who feel oppressed by the power of priests being at odds with those who can’t live without faith. In the end, the two sides develop respect for each other, but that doesn’t stop the spilling of blood.

Three Houses is far from the first Fire Emblem title to grapple with the influence of religion on the world. Just two years ago, the remake Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia showcased a clash between two distinct religions that complicated the link between lovers Alm and Celica. But an emphasis on education, both in its story and gameplay, separates Three Houses from every title in the series that’s been released in the United States. The students’ melee and magical abilities in combat are affected by how the player manages educational and training goals. The most powerful types of warriors can only be produced if you identify and grow the proper skills, making Three Houses as much about preparation as action.

This system amplifies the story’s drama. Viewing the proceedings of the game as a teacher who wants to help students succeed, you might feel regret upon seeing past classmates fight to the death. And when Byleth is forced to dispatch former students, it’s hard to derive much satisfaction from a well-executed military tactic. Few strategy RPGs are as self-critical as Three Houses. If you happen to choose a side that promotes the Church of Seiros, the story rarely gives one the sense that the church is justified in using soldiers to suppress rebellions. Similarly, the game’s atheistic movement subscribes to a dubious morality, as the non-religious decry the brutality of the church as they carry out their own brand of domination against those who disagree with their worldview. Three Houses recognizes that war, no matter the reason for it, isn’t about heroism but dreams of a better future after the violence ceases.

The turn-based fights in Three Houses take inspiration from Shadows of Valentia, avoiding the series’s well-known sword-axe-lance triangle system and instituting a time-travel mechanic that allows the player to rewind turns a limited number of times. The game further distinguishes itself with gigantic maps and a high number of enemies, both of which can make certain isolated skirmishes feel like dungeon-crawling expeditions. The larger levels reinforce the idea that you’re playing Fire Emblem with the highest of stakes. The final two battles, which can take multiple hours to win given the incessant wave of projectiles hurled at your troops from afar, more than confirm this notion. Because stages often feature surprise attacks and multiple pathways to reach enemy commanders, one’s strategic placement of individual characters on the tile-based battlefield—whether to absorb damage, block the trajectories of foes, or set up battalion attacks—has never been more critical in a Fire Emblem title.

The game’s audiovisuals are another high for the series. Not only is the animation extremely smooth, but unlike previous Fire Emblem entries in which only major cast members are spotlighted during battle, numerous infantry sprites fight alongside higher-ranking soldiers when the camera zooms in on the violence, further underscoring the more sprawling nature of Three Houses. But it’s the audio that’s the heart and soul of this game. The soundtrack morphs to reflect the emotional context of the narrative, as when the game’s main theme at the school transforms after Byleth’s father dies, with the soft and pleading piano and the ephemeral violins capturing the vulnerability and emptiness, respectively, that plague those who mourn. The shards of dialogue that are heard in battle, whether braggadocious (“See you in the eternal flames”) or existential (“I will not die here”), make up a moving and often hilarious tapestry of characters trying to find their way through bloodshed.

The work of one voice actor in particular, Chris Hackney (who plays Dimitri of the Blue Lions), epitomizes the ultimate theme of Three Houses. Dimitri, the son of a murdered king, initially seems like a well-meaning, well-put-together noble of the church who wants everyone to get along despite his participation in killings. But events cause him to reach a breaking point, and it’s at this juncture where Hackney’s genius comes into full bloom as he injects a distinctive type of campy despair and anger into Dimitri’s voice. The apoplectic evolution of Dimitri is a tragicomical take on how people hide their demons in trying to appear holier than others. That Three Houses can deliver such a powerful, simple statement about humanity, within an elongated structure that would weigh down the messages of other games, is extraordinary.

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

Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: July 26, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Metal Wolf Chaos XD Plays Like a Vicious Indictment of Our Present

The game isn’t really supposed to be about anything, yet in that ambiguity it captures the specific madness of our present.

3.5

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Metal Wolf Chaos XD
Photo: Devolver Digital

Up until the release of this remaster, the 2004 video game Metal Wolf Chaos was a bizarre curio: not just for being a rare Japan-only exclusive for the Xbox (a console that’s decidedly unpopular in the country), but for having a concept that howls for an overseas release. After all, you play Michael Wilson, the 47th president of the United States, who pilots his personal presidential mech against the treacherous vice president and his military forces. As satire goes, the game’s concept is heightened to astronomical levels, so ludicrously broad that it cannot possibly land with any real impact. And yet over a decade later, as the game’s president engages in that distinctly American method of problem solving by shooting the absolute fuck out of everything, it lands with a sickening thud.

Though various cutscenes and in-mission dialogue allude to things like a propaganda news network and fossil fuel exhaustion, it’s difficult to call any specific part of the game an incisive critique of the United States, because there are no real specifics. Japanese developer From Software operates in a strictly cartoonish mode throughout. At one point, a journalist from news network DNN reports that “not even the Constitution” is a match for the evil of the terrorist president and his mech, Metal Wolf. No person in the game presents a coherent ideology, to the point where that’s the joke; there are no beliefs in the America of Metal Wolf Chaos so much as a collection of nebulous buzzwords, where Wilson bloviates about “following [his] own justice” and “the America that lives on in [his] heart.” Even the CNN-like logo for DNN sits in front of two rotating circles that simply repeat the words “freedom” and “justice.” These are politics as conceptualized by a fourth grader dozing off in social studies.

In an era where the country is ruled by a rambling, incoherent cretin, however, it’s this exact vagueness that’s so cutting about the game’s satire. Each day provides further proof that specifics don’t really matter to many of our politicians, who do little more than invoke the siren call of uncritical patriotism to win over people who want only to be assured that everything is all right. To debate means to parrot rehearsed talking points, to discuss mass shooting is to pivot to video game violence, and to address human rights violations is to get bogged down in the pure semantics of what to call a concentration camp. Metal Wolf Chaos isn’t really supposed to be about anything, yet in that ambiguity it captures the specific madness of our present, the vacuous anti-intellectualism that cultivates an atmosphere of complacency and inaction where nothing may be done except to offer thoughts and prayers.

The game’s surrealism is enhanced by its stilted presentation, with strangely phrased lines delivered by robotic voice actors. Prisoners of war, who are housed in cages scattered throughout each level, are broken up into the inexplicable categories of CITIZEN, SCIENTIST, and MUSICIAN. After-mission epilogues display text over an image of the Lincoln Memorial, their dramatic prose constantly threatening to turn purple: Resistance fighters have “alabaster souls,” and one character laments how “all of America and its freedoms were paved over by the thick, oppressive asphalt of tyranny.” From the dialogue’s constant stream of terrible jokes—“I’ll smash them faster than a Florida recount”—to the way the menu music’s repetitive guitar rock slowly devolves into an unlistenable squeal, Metal Wolf Chaos is often an absurdist masterstroke, a work that might fit neatly into a Tim and Eric sketch or a game by SWERY. It’s at once the clear result of an outsider’s teasing perception of American culture and some collective hallucination manifested by the country’s rotting, idiot soul.

Yet couched as it is in gun violence, there’s little thrill of having one’s views validated when playing Metal Wolf Chaos in the wake of multiple mass shootings. By dropping the president into a mech, the game reveals itself as a statement on the country’s worship of guns and violent intervention writ large, where the ultimate “good guy with a gun” rampages through the streets, unloading on everything that moves or seems likely to explode. It’s satire by way of total mortification, the kind that doesn’t make you pat yourself on the back so much as squirm when you recognize the seed from which its concept grew.

That Metal Wolf Chaos still plays well only adds to the discomfort. Weapon selection is cumbersome since the gun portraits all look too similar and you must unintuitively mash triggers to scroll between them, but on the whole, your Metal Wolf moves smoothly through the game’s environments, boosting through obstacles with ease. The arcade-y, mission-based structure provides environment variety while generous auto-targeting mostly leaves you to dodge and hit the buttons that fire missiles and bullets. It all feels satisfying, but it’s also sickening that the basic pleasure center of the brain is so readily activated even in this context, where the game’s satire is tightly wrapped around such a grave truth. Metal Wolf Chaos is near-unspeakably absurd, and that something so outlandish hits its mark 15 years later feels less like good-natured ribbing than a vicious, necessary indictment of the fact that, in those intervening years, we haven’t changed much as a country.

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

Developer: From Software, General Arcade Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 6, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Hamsterdam Frustratingly Throws Rhythm and Precision to the Winds

As the game never really switches up its formula, it’s not long before fatigue sets in.

1.5

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Hamsterdam
Photo: Muse Games

Muse Games’s Hamsterdam: Paws of Justice is being touted as “a game where rhythm and precision meets some good old fashioned button-mashing.” But this beat ‘em up throws rhythm and precision to the winds across its approximately three-hour campaign, existing only to satisfy players’ thirst for mindless button-mashing.

Hamsterdam’s narrative is the flimsiest of veils to propel the action forward. The game’s hero, Pimm, is a cute hamster who uses martial arts to save the city of Hamsterdam from the evil chinchilla Marlo. Using button, gesture, and touch controls, Pimm can attack, counter, and execute a special move once his K.O. meter is full. Throughout, you’ll spend many a level mash-attacking until the Rodent Gang—composed of mice, rabbits, and the like—is disbanded, and, no doubt, bemoaning how the game requires you to make little to no strategic maneuvers. It almost stings that the only means of increasing the game’s difficulty is by adding more enemies with larger health pools who are all functionally and visually the same.

In Hamsterdam, you’re able to execute a number of Hamster-fu techniques. The Charged attack, which is necessary to use later in the game, breaks the guard of shielded enemies, while the Perfect attack, just before a visible halo around Pimm dissipates, deals extra damage and more quickly fills your K.O. meter. Both techniques are useful for staggering enemies and causing them to drop health items—that is, if they actually worked as intended. Indeed, because Hamsterdam has issues recognizing your button inputs, it’s frustratingly common here for you to try an execute an attack only for Pimm to just stand around doing nothing.

As the game never really switches up its formula, it’s not long before fatigue sets in. Every level is identical to the last, with enemies appearing more or less where you expect. The only real visible changes Hamsterdam offers across its 30 or so levels are those found in the customization options for Pimm, the backgrounds, and the clothing worn by the Rodent Gang—and even those are just very minor color alterations. You’re liable to be struck by a palpable sense of déjà vu while button-mashing on the streets of Hamsterdam, illustrating that simplicity may be conducive to accessibility, but it’s also the quickest way to stoke boredom.

Don’t be fooled by the different colors that are meant to denote harder enemies and new levels, as there’s no disguising Hamsterdam’s ardent commitment to the blandness of its combat and world. Not only do enemies always appear to the right of Pimm, they just idly stand by, begging for a beating. Even the big skirmishes see little variance, with most bosses easily dispatched with just a few hits. Pimm may be cute, and he looks like he hits hard, but in action, Hamsterdam doesn’t convince us that there’s much power in his little paws.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Future Friends Games.

Developer: Muse Games Publisher: Muse Games Platform: Switch Release Date: August 1, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: In Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, Killing Nazis Is a Robotic Affair

The game’s first-person-shooter sequences aren’t just dull and familiar, but also clunky, given the touchy VR controls.

1.5

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Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Every inch of Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot—which is set in an alternative history where Paris, in 1980, is occupied by Nazis—feels as if it’s been scrubbed of meaning, turning as it does the City of Lights into a gussied-up virtual reality shooting gallery that provides the emptiest of thrills. As you navigate three distinct robots through a grand total of four linear areas, you’ll come to feel as if you’re running on autopilot as you gun down Nazis or snap together color-coded parts in order to assemble a weapon that you’ll later use to kill your fascist enemies. Despite the three-dimensionality of the game’s virtual terrain, this is the most one-dimensional title in MachineGames’s modern Wolfenstein series.

Had Cyberpilot given deeper context to its milieu, or offered a hook on which to hang our emotional investment, it might have felt as if it there was something more to the game, which sees you mount a series of low-stakes resistance missions in order to destroy the German Brother 3 base. Because neither your hacker protagonist nor his unseen handlers, who speak to you remotely, are fleshed out, you may care little about whether they live or die. And only the background graphics distinguish the Nazis you face on the streets of Paris from the computer-generated ones you encounter in your VR training simulator. They mindlessly charge toward you—or stand in place, waiting to be shot—and then unrealistically vanish after dying. None of your actions seem to have any repercussions or lasting effect. Worst of all, the game’s virtual reality immersion is insubstantial, as you never feel as if you’re actually inside a hulking machine, and a fading strip of LED lights is the only indication you’ve taken damage.

At most, Cyberpilot succeeds in giving players a more intricate understanding of how three classic foes from the modern Wolfenstein series go about committing mayhem. Before piloting the flamethrowing, fast-charging Panzerhund or the twin-armed, rocket-launching, machine-gunning Zitadelle, players will manipulate their massive frames within a hangar bay, looking to repair, reboot, and repurpose the robots. But getting into the cockpit of these machines doesn’t actually add all that much to the franchise. As the game puts it, you’re just turning “Nazi killing machines into Nazi-killing machines.” The emphasis is entirely on the killing part, whereas at least the previous two Wolfenstein games took the time to worldbuild. In The New Order, you interact with those trapped in a European concentration camp, and in The New Colossus, you witness the casual racism of a resurgent KKK on the otherwise cheerful streets of Nazi-subjugated America. Cyberpilot tells us nothing about Paris, its occupants, or the resistance. It only parades the soulless sheen of mechanical monstrosities.

The game’s first-person-shooter sequences aren’t just dull and familiar, but also clunky, given the touchy VR controls. It’s difficult to hit the strafe buttons while moving forward or backward, and the snap-turn function (instantly pivoting a certain number of degrees to the side) creates a juddery sense of progression. Moreover, the robots you pilot are handicapped by a lack of versatility, at least compared to the moveset of Wolfenstein’s usual protagonist, B.J. Blazkowicz, who could swap weapons, sneak through vents, and explore secret passages. When you’re playing as the slow and tanky Zitadelle, you’re firing rockets and bullets and occasionally popping your emergency shield, with little need to move out of harm’s way, and when operating the Panzerhund, you’re using your ramming attack to quickly close gaps so that you can then electrocute or immolate your foes. While piloting the Drone, players have a second option—using the cloaking device to sneak by foes—but even here, the limited level design (and horrible AI) encourages players to simply gun each and every Nazi down.

Cyberpilot doesn’t end so much as it trails off, with you strapped into a bombed-out cockpit beside a Nazi’s corpse. The game leaves you with a subtly terrifying understanding of a soldier’s disposability, but before the credits roll, its m.o. is to provide you only with the ostensible thrill of shooting Nazis in VR, which, as it turns out, is too flimsy a proposition to sustain a two-hour campaign. Films like Inglourious Basterds make us care about its Nazi-killers, but the nihilistic Cyberpilot doesn’t bother to care about anyone or anything.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: MachineGames Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PSVR Release Date: July 26, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Wolfenstein: Youngblood Soullessly Runs the Numbers Treadmill

It experiments with all the weakest parts of the series and ties them together with a new, tedious progression system.

1.5

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Compared to its predecessors, the most noticeable change that Wolfenstein: Youngblood makes to the series’s proven formula isn’t the touted presence of a partner character, who’s controlled either by the AI or a second player. Rather, it’s the little popup numbers that tell you how many experience points a Nazi death is worth or how many silver coins you’ve collected. Those numbers signify the new direction that Wolfenstein is taking under the watch of MachineGames. Indeed, the story-driven series has been reconfigured into a bite-sized, co-op-enabled amalgamation of the so-called “forever game,” a ceaseless quest to get your numbers to go up, up, up—because that’s the way to acquire more stuff. Amass enough coins and you can buy a new shotgun attachment. And don’t forget to check the list in the hub area for daily and weekly challenges to complete for bonus rewards.

It’s 1980 in an alternate history where the Third Reich won World War II, decades after the events of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and series protagonist B.J. Blaskowicz has gone missing. Jess and Soph, his teenage daughters, track him to Nazi-occupied Paris and get caught up in the French resistance’s struggle to liberate the city, though there’s precious little time to get to know the sisters. From snippets of dialogue and a handful of cutscenes, they suggest complete doofuses in a way that’s endearing, evincing none of the cool-guy posturing of most video game heroes; instead, they tell juvenile little jokes, reminisce about home, and obsess over some ludicrous-sounding series of British spy novels. But most of your time is devoted to roaming the open-world districts of Paris, where the real story seems only to be that there are Nazis to shoot in between you and the next objective marker. Plenty of people stand around the hub area, a resistance outpost in the Paris catacombs, but they’re little more than quest-givers, glorified signposts to more experience and more coins.

Expectations should, on some level, be tempered for Youngblood, which is clearly a smaller, more experimental spin-off at half the price of its predecessor. But it experiments with all the weakest parts of the series and ties them together with a new, tedious, and all-consuming progression system. The Wolfenstein series’s gunplay, an awkward middle ground between run-and-gunning and taking potshots from behind cover, has changed very little here; some enemies still soak up a truly absurd number of bullets to little apparent reaction, and stealth remains an undercooked afterthought. In some places, however, bandages have been applied to the prior game’s unclear action and navigation mechanics; indicators that you’re being shot are now impossible to miss, while the inclusion of a minimap and giant enemy health bars somewhat mitigate the problem of gray enemies blending into similarly gray backgrounds.

But for what flaws have been ironed out from The New Colossus, this game’s additional systems have only created new ones. Frequent popups state the exact number of available upgrades, yet time and time again you must scroll through every single option because the menu never highlights the upgrades you can actually afford, most of which modify arcane gun statistics to little appreciable difference. Missions tend to task you with running back and forth between multiple districts, killing enemies who respawn the moment you leave, and there’s no convenient way to make the most of each excursion since missions aren’t grouped according to location. It’s not even easy to choose the type of ammo most effective against an enemy because both ammo icons are just two different kinds of white rectangles.

Most of these problems are quality-of-life quibbles, but they snowball into something monumentally irritating, which only highlights how ill-equipped this series is to focus near-exclusively on shooting rather than storytelling. Prior games in the series carved out a surprising amount of space for the characters while somehow weaving outlandish plot twists (preserved heads, moon bases) into coherent themes. But asYoungblood wears on and the numbers that let you buy better things continue to climb, the game only raises the question of whether divorcing the context from the plot tying it together is even a particularly good idea.

The Wolfenstein games have sometimes struggled with their loaded subject matter, like the unexamined jingoism of the United States that’s paraded about in The New Colossus. But for the most part, these games treat their thin historical basis with a bizarrely appropriate mixture of respect and disrespect, never diminishing the threat of their Nazis antagonists yet equally intent on demythologizing them. By incorporating absurd sci-fi technology, this series heightens its narrative to near-cartoonish levels of remove while nevertheless regarding it with a straight face, foregrounding its Nazis’ noxious ideologies as well as the suffering that emerges in a world governed by them. But by minimizing Wolfenstein’s focus on story, Youngblood thus removes much of this context, transforming the series’s reckoning with Nazism from a semi-coherent thesis into merely so much wallpaper over nondescript video game bad guys. In addition to being generally misjudged and cumbersome, this latest Wolfenstein title feels more than a little crass as its antagonists devolve into the thing they pointedly weren’t in prior games: a simple backdrop while you run the numbers treadmill.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: MachineGames, Arkane Studios Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 26, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Sea of Solitude Offers a Dreamscape Awash in Banal Abstraction

Its repetitive tasks are like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

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Sea of Solitude
Photo: Electronic Arts

An endless ocean submerges an orange-bricked German city, its rooftops drenched in sunlight or doused in rain as they poke through the watery barrier. The soft, cartoonish look of this place seems to deserve a word like “beautiful.” On the other hand, leading Sea of Solitude’s black-feathered, red-eyed protagonist, Kay, into collectible memories, which queue up wistful dialogue snippets from a life outside her metaphorical turmoil in the waterlogged city, might warrant something like “heartfelt.” The vocabulary for evaluating a game like Sea of Solitude, which is designed completely around emotions and various manifestations of mental health, may sound positive, but it’s also undeniably familiar.

Puttering across the sea on her tiny motorboat or hopping around sun-kissed platforms, Kay encounters literalized inner demons. Many of them are dark things to be avoided. Others can be led into the light that will destroy them. A monster in its shell blocks Kay’s path, and whispering, anonymous shadows follow her if she gets too close to them. Clouds of gloomy thought become actual baggage once Kay walks up to a glowing orange circle and the player presses the button that sucks those clouds into her ballooning backpack. The themes of loneliness and empathy are quite explicit here, and if familiarity and explicitness aren’t inherent problems, in Sea of Solitude they’re nonetheless the symptoms of the game’s difficulty envisioning a unified wrapper for feelings it wants to evoke.

The mechanical trappings of Sea of Solitude are basic to the point of feeling perfunctory, like mindless tasks to perform while each new floating orange circle spoons out dialogue for thematic context. It’s all mostly polished, of course; Kay flops around a little as she walks, and she visibly shivers at the whip-crack of thunder and lightning. You’ll jump, sail, melt ice, and illuminate shadowy figures, but the connection between these actions and the intended emotions always feels tenuous at best because they rarely have a discernible effect on or specific ties to the world in front of you. The dialogue colors in some world that’s conspicuously beyond Kay’s metaphorical dreamscape; though she claims to recognize certain places in the city, most seem indistinguishable from the last. All of these repetitive tasks seem more like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

There are fleeting moments of empathetic power over Sea of Solitude’s brief runtime, where the imagery and the action coalesce into some recognizable slice of Kay’s life. But so much of the game feels only slightly more cohesive than someone scribbling the word “depression” over, say, a picture of a person being eaten by a shark. Games like Psychonauts or The Gardens Between work a character’s personal details into the level design, while the horror game Devotion uses specific objects and actions to supplement the rising tide of memory. Sea of Solitude, however, is so blandly abstract that it loses any sense of specificity.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Jo-Mei Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Super Mario Maker 2 Joyously Puts Creation in the Player’s Hands

From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached.

4.5

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Super Mario Maker 2
Photo: Nintendo

Like its predecessor, Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker 2 is predominantly what it announces itself to be: an extremely versatile creation engine allowing players to make their own side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. levels, using the mechanics, assets, and aesthetics of the series’s best games. The 2015 original for the Wii U had some strangely arbitrary limits and omitted elements, things that the creator community delighted in finding patchwork ways of recreating. Those creators will find that Mario Maker 2 has matched their ambitions. For one, you can now make slopes that Mario can slide down. And that terrifying evil sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 is now in the mix. Also, auto-scroll levels can be finetuned to change direction and speed at will. Whatever barriers to the player’s imagination existed in the first iteration of this game, Nintendo has torn many of them down.

That goes hand in hand with Mario Maker 2 opening up creative pathways left unexplored by the first game. You’re allowed to create levels that take place in a wide assortment of weather environments, with new chiptunes accompanying the creation of levels from the series’s 8-bit titles. Super Mario 3D World has been added as a visual/mechanical option, which allows for multi-level backgrounds and hazards, along with all the unique and delightfully adorable cat-costume shenanigans from that game. The conditions for clearing a stage can be changed to where just making it to the flag is far from enough. More ambitious is the option to switch any stage to a nighttime mode, which changes its physics. Ice stages are more slippery, and ghost houses have less visibility. Airship levels, in particular, are particularly awe-inspiring for their unique mood and texture, with rain, thunder, and lightning—conditions that allow for sea-based elements to float through the air—now standing in your way throughout.

The most blessed thing about the experience, though, is that aside from a couple of buried secrets, all these tools are all available to the player upfront. From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached. Now, the only real barrier to immediate entry is that Course Mode’s user interface is still so heavily designed for a touchscreen. Using the analog sticks or a Pro controller isn’t impossible, but it’s drastically less intuitive than using the Switch’s touchscreen, while undocked, to build levels.

For those less inclined to just jump right in and start creating levels, not only is there an in-depth and endlessly amusing tutorial, where you’re taught by a woman and her talking pigeon companion, but a full-fledged Story Mode. Surprisingly, there isn’t even a Bowser-kidnaps-Princess conceit this time around: As a result of a complete accident, the hilarious particulars of which won’t be spoiled here, Princess Toadstool’s castle gets completely erased, and a small crew of Toads and Toadettes is tasked with rebuilding. The project costs money, though, and it’s up to Mario to go freelance, running through over 100 custom levels—explained here as “odd jobs”—to collect all the coins he can in order to fund the construction project. Somewhere in there is a sharp commentary on the dangers of gig economy, but more than anything else, Story Mode is a brilliantly tactile and immersive extension of the tutorial on how the myriad assets given to you in Course Mode can be utilized. You’ll leave more than a few courses with devious ideas, and that certainly seems intentional.

The possibilities are endless, and even a cursory glance at the game’s online community shows that those possibilities are being explored to their fullest, and that the limits of what this toolbox is capable of are being pushed. Indeed, some of the best stages currently out there shift Super Mario Bros. as a series of platformers into the far reaches of other genres, form spins on Pong to 2D versions of Mario Kart to elaborate facsimiles of Metroid.

Mario Maker 2’s sole problem is that it’s a fundamentally lonely game. You can share course codes, and follow your friends through their Maker IDs, and, of course, you can experience the worlds and challenges that others have created. However, the only substantive way to collaborate, compete, or build with other players is if they’re next to you on the couch. Designer and developer Shigeru Miyamoto may be a genius, but if there’s any one thing he’s been generous enough to hammer home over the years, it’s that given the option, he wouldn’t work alone. Right now, more often than not, players don’t have that option at all.

It’s still heartening to see Nintendo show the ultimate in respect to the poor, neglected Wii U by giving its best games new life on the vastly more successful Switch. Seeing Super Mario Maker enhanced to the point of becoming a straight-up sequel is magnificent, even as a few stray three-steps-forward-one-step-back decisions keep the game from true perfection.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Golin.

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: June 28, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SolSeraph Makes You an Angel but Traps You in Gaming Hell

The similarities between SolSeraph and ActRaiser are unmistakable, but it’s a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

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SolSeraph
Photo: Sega

Some time ago in the shallow world of ACE Team’s SolSeraph, Sky Father and Earth Mother drove back Chaos and created the Earth, before then vanishing from the planet, no longer directly meddling in the ways of mankind. But the void they left behind was soon filled by the Younger Gods of flooding, famine, and the like, who took it upon themselves to torment our nascent humanity. It’s finally left to the winged half-god, half-man Helios to defend mankind. Right out of the gate, the similarities between SolSeraph and the decades-old classic ActRaiser are unmistakable, right down to the hybrid action/strategy gameplay, but it’s an empty emulation, a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

SolSeraph boasts five essentially identical biomes. Entering a region requires players to clear a menial combat section and to perhaps platform their way over a few bottomless chasms. After doing so, they’ll take an angel’s-eye view of a village and issue orders to the helpless human inhabitants who know how to forage and fight but would never think to do so without godly assistance. Periodically, as a town survives enemy waves and builds temples, monster lairs are unlocked: short combat arenas that Helios fights his way through. Finally, after clearing all of these, players can face off against the region’s animal-themed boss.

The game offers an insultingly reductive mix of resource management and tower defense. There are two types of food-producing buildings, one that increases population, and one for harvesting wood. They can be instantly demolished for a full refund of workers and wood and almost as quickly rebuilt, so there are never any shortages, and no long-term consequences for poor planning. Likewise, there are but four defensive structures: melee barracks, ranged archery towers, a laser-shooting magical hut, and a crowd-controlling bomb-shack.

Helios is known as the Father of Forethought, so perhaps the dearth of strategic options available throughout SolSeraph is an inside joke, albeit a poor one, on ACE Team’s part. After all, the demons are so monomaniacally fixated on snuffing out your central bonfire that they march right past all your other vulnerable structures. This allows players to forget their measly four tactical options, or the range-, damage-, and speed-amplifying dwellings. You can win simply by lining the road with archery towers. For even less of a challenge, players can divinely intervene, using Helios to summon thunderbolts and sun spirits.

That you only ever need to use about half of the buildings or skills exposes the game’s emptiness. Some structures are introduced with a one-note mechanic, like wells, which you can build in every level but are only required for the Sekh Desert, where they turn inhospitable sands into arable farmland. These tools also sometimes fly in the face of narrative sense: You can’t build farms in the Vale of Yeg, as it’s too cold there, but you can depend on livestock for sustenance, which may lead you to wonder what exactly your animals eat. After a while, it feels as if the game’s environmental challenges exist only to mask the tedious repetition of each level, and given how the problems you run across are so easily addressed (bridges and boats are automatically built for you) or beside the point (the Arunan Isles occasionally and briefly flood without affecting gameplay), they ultimately feel entirely cosmetic.

This same redundancy spills over into the combat sections of SolSeraph. You climb the trees of the Plains of Widhu as you do the cliffs of Mount Agnir, and every area has some kind of spider, flying bat, and club-wielding monster. Two of the bosses—a snowy owl and fiery dragon—fly about, but you can otherwise just stand next to all of them, hacking away. (Outside of a healing spell, Helios’s magic is superfluous.)

Even the game’s plot is redundant. Each village is led by a different elder, but they all offer similar platitudes about the various forms of faith and mankind’s resilience, things that the game’s active sequences consistently rebuke. There’s no insight to be gleaned here, and no meaningful interaction beyond clicking on the campfire to hear more dialogue. Helios may protect mankind’s free will and creativity, but he appears to have none of his own.

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

Developer: ACE Team Publisher: Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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