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Review: The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New Day

You can punch, kick, or scurry away from blood-thirsty walkers with ease, and a reticle-based targeting system is intuitive when time is slipping through your fingers.

4.5

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The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New Day

Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a bleak, apocalyptic comic-book series, and its characters’ moral choices are often as chiaroscuroed as Charlie Adlard’s art. Rick Grimes and his crew of hapless wanderers are burdened by the nightmares, moral impasses, and backbiting arguments that spiral outward from each decision. This is both a boon and snag for Kirkman’s long-running Image/Skybound series and AMC’s entertaining but inconsistent television adaptation, as both can bore and entice with longwinded conversations about morality and the state of an apocalyptic world.

Telltale Games realizes this can be a stumbling block for the zombie genre and throw their hat into the adaptation ring with caution. The Walking Dead point-and-click adventure game boasts both believable characters and a compelling storyline. Such attention to detail already vaults the game above AMC’s merely adequate television series. The smart game manages to nearly rival Kirkman’s original tone, vision, and aptitude for rich character detail. This comes as a surprise after the stodgy quick-time events that pockmarked the colossal misstep that was 2011’s Jurassic Park: The Game. The Walking Dead sidesteps all of that game’s faults and becomes one of the early great moments for player-driven gaming this year. The key to creating such an engrossing experience is the amount of player agency found throughout the startling debut episode of this five-part downloadable series.

As with any adventure game series, you often find yourself talking to other characters and solving faintly taxing environmental puzzles. Telltale has never been strong at puzzles, but they impress in the area of character development and to be more specific, conversation trees. Episode one revolves around choice. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taking the time to get to know a character, or lying to cover your tracks. Elsewhere, your character may have to choose between saving a plucky reporter who’s a crack shot or a smart tech geek who helped you in a bind. Your choices are often permanent and logged for future episodes. This type of moral gaming is a hallmark of risk-taking games such as Mass Effect or Heavy Rain, but it’s a thrill to find a relatively small downloadable game exploring such yawning chasms of morality and emotion.

The intensity of bashing in a walker’s brains with a hammer or other sharp weapon dovetails into conversations with other members of your party. Exchanges aren’t only timed, they’re imperative to the through line and how it unfurls. The game’s main character exacerbates this tension as well because of his background.

The debut chapter of the video-game series, titled A New Day, centers on Lee Everett, a mysterious, affable, and well-written main character. At the beginning of the game his head is hung low, and he already thinks his life has reached a pitiful terminus as he sits in the back of a police car. Did the English and history professor really murder his wife’s lover? Should we be rooting for a man like him? Telltale isn’t afraid to ask these queries, and Everett’s interactions with other survivors in the greater Atlanta area will send ripples throughout the game’s world.

The emotional center of the game is revealed early, after Everett escapes a small cadre of the undead and stumbles into a suburban housing development. He finds Clementine, a brave first grader holed up in her tree house who helps you slay her undead babysitter in one of the game’s many grisly death scenes. Like AMC, Telltale doesn’t pull any punches in the gore and violence department. Blood splatter streaks across ceilings, furniture, and floors like a brutal form of calligraphy in nearly every environment. Everett plays as Clementine’s surrogate father from then on, and the adventure begins with a shudder and a shamble, death panting around every dark corner.

The highly interactive nature of this game harkens back to the hardened faces that populate Kirkman’s universe, but Telltale’s adaptation stands alone as its own artistic achievement. The controls are not as clunky as previous Telltale ventures, and each QTE is harrowing because of the subject matter and not because the controls are driving you loopy. Fans of the comic books and TV show will notice a few familiar characters, and the great part is that most of the new characters detailed for this series are just as remarkable.

Three save slots beg players to replay the game and approach each situation from an opposite angle. Instead of telling the truth, you can lie, or you may save a different person from a walker attack. In a few instances, a second playthrough wasn’t met with a wholly different outcome and a negligible amount of conversations didn’t mesh with previous decisions. This was slightly disheartening, but Telltale mostly achieves their goal of creating a relatable main character and interactive story. (Interesting side note: After the credits roll on episode one, you can see the percentage of other gamers that sided with your decisions or chose a divergent path.)

A profoundly intriguing narrative is a thrill to experience, but The Walking Dead also manages to be a solidly playable game. Whereas Telltale’s controls for Back to the Future and Jurassic Park were sometimes twisted and unrefined, controlling Everett is straightforward. You can punch, kick, or scurry away from blood-thirsty walkers with ease, and a reticle-based targeting system is intuitive when time is slipping through your fingers. You move the reticle with the right analog stick and move your character with the left.

Each area of the game is also limited in terms of space, so you won’t be wandering around for too long trying to figure out what to do as Marty McFly did in Back to the Future’s playable environments. Telltale does offer an easy mode that makes all of the clickable spots on your screen stand out with a gleaming white dot, but these markers can diminish the fun factor that comes alongside investigating a three-dimensional adventure game world.

And this game’s world is a wonderfully cell-shaded environment that engages well with its comic-book roots. The black outlines of cars, characters, and buildings vacillate between the starkness and vibrant pop aesthetic of a comic. This is a scrupulously handsome game from beginning to end, one that has every piece in place for a riveting experience for the coming months.

Developer: Telltale Games Publisher: Telltale Games Platform: PlayStation Network Release Date: April 24, 2012 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Outer Wilds Is a Wondrous Maze of Infinite, Breathtaking Possibilities

This is a rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination.

5

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Outer Wilds
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds begins and ends with a quietly spectacular explosion. As a result of this open-world space exploration game’s time-looping mechanic, one of those explosions is the first thing you’ll see every time you reawaken, but it’s so far off in the distance—just a brief flash of rippling orange in outer space that’s overshadowed by the surface of a massive green planetoid—that it might take a few cycles before you actually notice it. And even then, its significance won’t become apparent until you’ve blasted off from your home planet and flown yourself out there to get a better look at the blast.

The understated appeal of the smartly designed Outer Wilds stems from its abundance of deliberate details scattered across its worlds, ever-nudging you toward understanding how various scientific phenomenon operate. This is a game so beautiful that you might spend hours taking in the sights before you start focusing on its loose, nonlinear plot. Despite taking place in a comparatively small six-planet solar system, the game’s open-galaxy design feels full of infinite possibilities, each excursion as fresh and exciting as the last, even hours in.

Should you survive for a consecutive 22 minutes, you’ll come across that second explosion. You’ll hear a sonic boom and, if you’re facing the right way, see a universe-engulfing tide of crackling blue energy coming your way, resetting the time loop and providing a fairly substantial (though never obtrusive) endgame, one in which you must find a way to prevent your sun from going supernova. But think of the solar system’s terminal diagnosis as less of an ending than a chance at a fresh beginning: carte blanche to try just about anything.

Even if there’s only one real way to “beat” it, there’s no wrong way to play Outer Wilds, and no barriers in your way. You don’t have to fight any enemies or level up—a tacit acknowledgement on the game’s part that the galaxy’s destruction can’t be prevented through brute force, only through the fearless act of discovery. For one, you’ll fly through a tangle of tornadoes on Giant’s Deep that are periodically thrusting the planet’s islands into orbit, and on Brittle Hollow, you’ll follow a precarious trail of gravity crystals along the underside of the planet’s exposed equator. You also don’t need to collect any items. Everything you need is given to you at the game’s start: a radio-frequency scanner, a launchable probe that takes pictures and measures surface stability, an auto-translator for alien languages, and a spacesuit capable of rocket propulsion. How you choose to use these items to do your first-person exploration is entirely up to you, and that freedom is a large part of the game’s charm.

Early on, you’ll visit a museum that outlines the history of the Outer Wilds space program, with exhibits that call out some of the unexplained quantum phenomena and gravitational distortions that your fellow explorers have found. You’ll later encounter many of these same exhibits in the wild, on a much larger and dangerous scale, but as the museum suggests, the game’s overarching theme isn’t just about encountering these things or exploring the many eye-catching, heart-stopping wonders of Outer Wilds, but appreciating how they work. You’re going to be eaten by a giant anglerfish, smashed by a rotating column of ash, engulfed by the sun, buffeted by heavy gravity, thrown through a black hole, electrocuted by a jellyfish. But you’ll also study the skeletal remains of that fish or the frozen corpse of a jellyfish and realize how to utilize them. You’ll marvel at what first seems like magic, and then you’ll pull up Clarke’s third law and exploit the technology or quantum physics behind it.

The game’s time loop allows players to harmlessly test lethal hypotheses, such as what might happen if you use a geyser to propel yourself to new heights, or mix two forms of warp cores in the High Energy Lab located on Ember Twin. Throughout, your ship’s log tracks the overarching goals via a digital corkboard web of rumors—concerning gravity cannons, missing escape pods, your fellow explorers, and the mysterious Quantum Moon—but it doesn’t explicitly ask you to pursue any of those leads. In fact, Outer Wilds never even warns you that your sun is about to go supernova or suggests that you find a way to stop it.

Repetition is often the bane of time-looping games, and this is where Outer Wilds benefits from its open galaxy setting. You can travel to anything you see, even if it’s not always apparent how to, say, land on a stray comet, or approach the tiny space station that orbits the sun without being pulled into a massive star. Moreover, each planet feels distinct: Your home world of Timber Hearth is a small region of geysers and massive oxygen-producing trees, which is a far cry from Giant’s Deep, a gas-giant-like planet made of fluid layers, and the dangerous Dark Bramble, what with its misty voids and treacherous anglerfish.

And these planets continue to change as time passes, which makes familiar locations feel new again, if visited later on in the game. Take, for instance, the two binary planets known collectively as the Hourglass Twins. As sand is gravitationally pulled from Ash Twin and deposited on Ember Twin, you’ll find that the latter planet’s caves fill, becoming inaccessible. By contrast, as Ash Twin is denuded of its sandy shell, entire towers are unearthed.

Elsewhere, as planets orbit closer to the sun, iced-over paths might melt open, revealing shortcuts through, say, deadly, invisible ghost matter. You might start out trying to access the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, but along the way, you may discover the massive bridges leading to the Hanging City, get sidetracked by signage pointing to the Gravity Cannon, experiment with leaping between tractor beams that lead to a Quantum Tower, or simply stumble into the hollow planet’s black-hole core and end up teleported elsewhere. Or you might get struck by debris and die, resetting back to the game’s start.

Think, then, of Outer Wilds as a maze without dead ends, or like the Nomai language itself, which is depicted as a series of geometric spirals branching out from a fixed point. Each branch, no matter how small, offers up some sort of discovery, whether it’s just a breathtaking vista, a scientific model, a fossil, or a text log. The rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination, Outer Wilds delights in inviting you to spend a few minutes marveling at the sight of the galaxy as planets orbit balletically in and out of view. You’re not exploring a series of discrete worlds so much as you are engaging with one interconnected star system, constantly learning right up to your final expedition. That’s the brilliant hook that’ll keep you returning, loop after loop, not just for the chance to watch the dizzyingly beautiful (and angrily reddening) sun crest into view, but to better know why it does so. The real world is overwhelming and unmooring, but here, in 22-minute chunks, you can wrest back a sense of control and understanding of a momentous model galaxy.

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

Developer: Mobius Digital Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: March 30, 2019 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Warhammer: Chaosbane Is a Hack-and-Slash Adventure Without Purpose

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by a punishing sense of repetition.

1

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Warhammer: Chaosbane
Photo: Eko Software

The opening cinematic for Warhammer: Chaosbane sets the tone for the game that follows. The series of crudely animated storyboard sketches describe a rather generic massive-scale war that’s just been concluded against the forces of Chaos and how your chosen protagonist bravely helped Commander Magnus to victory. What follows isn’t a hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler so much as a hack-and-slack time-killer, one that pales in comparison to the game that Chaosbane fruitlessly emulates: Diablo.

Chaosbane’s squandered potential is most evident in how the game mishandles its four selectable characters. Elessa, a wood-elf archer, is meant to use poisons and traps to keep enemies at bay, but those skills are never needed, as the game’s witless AI hordes are only too happy to serve as stationary targets for her arrows. The dwarven Bragi Axebiter uses a chain axe to grapple into foes, since his rage-based mechanic relies upon constantly hitting things, so it’s odd that many dungeons are filled with long, empty corridors that drain his rage meter. Konrad Vollen, a shield-bearing soldier gains extra strength when taunting or being swarmed by enemies, and yet outside of the co-op campaign, he seems rather listless, his status-boosting AOE banners largely going to waste. And then there’s the high-elf mage Elontir, who’s impossibly complicated to handle in the solo campaign. Indeed, the joy of finely controlling his spells is lost in the hectic rush of constantly teleporting away from foes.

The first few dungeons showcase Bigben Interactive’s latest at its best, as they at least offer the illusion of depth and variety. You’ll move from the green-hued sewers beneath Nuln to the ramparts above, and then through the grim, gray-hewn streets of the ravaged fortress city, all the while learning exciting new moves. (Never mind that the characters seem to have inexplicably forgotten all their heroic skills from that introductory cutscene.) But should you decide you don’t like Bragi’s fast-paced dual-wielding axes and want to shift to Konrad’s slower, more methodical sword-and-shield bashing, you’ll have to begin a whole new campaign, and it’s here that the game’s non-randomized levels come dully into view.

Even if you never restart and choose to stick with a single character, the rewards are quickly diminishing. You’ll revisit slightly different areas of Nuln’s sewers and streets throughout the first chapter, fighting, for the most part, the same types of monsters: some sort of swarmer, some sort of tank, a ranged unit, and perhaps a mounted creature. Your hero, limited to a single weapon type, only ever minimally upgrades his or her loot, and of those 14 active abilities and countless passives to equip, only a few builds seem viable or interesting.

The game’s main campaign is relentlessly repetitious. Dungeons are straightforward affairs, mostly linear corridors that are occasionally pockmarked with a treasure-filled cul de sac, though they offer no optional objectives or lore. There are no side quests, no interactions with townsfolk, not even a shop. There are only five or six NPCs, all of whom give the same fetch-quest variations, only with slightly different accents, and ultimately, whether they send you to the frosty trees of the Forest of Knives or the floating stone bridges of the Chaos Realm, the result is always exactly the same. While Chaosbane abounds in colorful background details—toothy red maws pressing out of the earth, tentacles flailing far beneath you—the game would have been better served by bringing more hazards to the actual forefront, so as to break up the monotony of just how easy it is to vanquish your enemies.

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by that sense of repetition. Chaosbane’s four bosses are its strongest feature, given that they possess unique mechanics that you must learn to strategically overcome, from dodging a bullet-hell attack to baiting a laser away from the pillars that you’ll later need as cover. But replaying these encounters in Boss Rush mode quickly blunts the excitement of learning boss patterns, making these encounters as rote as any other enemy in the game. Increasing the difficulty simply allows enemies to hit harder and absorb more damage, which makes the game longer, not harder, and the post-game Relic Hunt mode’s random enemy modifiers do little to change this. To put it lightly, it’s a case in which nothing is adventured, and nothing is gained.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by HomeRun PR.

Developer: Bigben Interactive Publisher: Eko Software Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Pathologic 2 Bears Witness to the Enormity of a Town’s Suffering

Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.

4

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Pathologic 2
Photo: tinyBuild

If “fun” is on one extreme of the video game emotional spectrum, Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic 2 is on the other. It drops you into its setting with a harshness that’s redolent of a season’s first blast of freezing cold. As that setting, a remote town on the Russian steppe, is ravaged by mass hysteria and plague, you feel desperate and hopeless, struggling against a force you don’t understand and cannot seem to overcome so much as momentarily stave off. Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.

Despite the number in its title, the game is a partial remake of the cult 2004 original, which featured three playable characters with different yet interconnected stories. As of its initial release, this remake features only one: Artemy Burakh, also known as the Haruspex, a surgeon called back home by his father, a sort of folk healer within the community. For most players, however, experiencing Pathologic 2 once as a single character will be more than enough, given the game’s length and sheer difficulty. Over the ensuing 12 days, everything in the village goes wrong. Its dubious meat-packing industry halts, the tensions with an indigenous group called the Kin run hot, and a plague fills the air with black particles. People die in the streets, their houses, and the makeshift hospital cobbled together in the theater. Plague districts are cordoned off and marked by great bonfires. The army arrives, prepared to purge. For this isolated village, it feels like the end of the world, and you feel it in your bones because the game constantly places you on edge through its harsh survival mechanics.

Meters for exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tick down every minute of each hellish day, and while there are initially plenty of functional water pumps around town to quench your thirst, the other two meters need to be managed on a constricted schedule and whatever pittance is on hand. If any bar fills, it begins to subtract health. Throughout, you get what you need however you’re willing to get it. Children, for one, love nuts and sharp objects, so you might trade a pair of broken, rusty scissors and some peanuts for a salted fish to eat (at the cost of thirst), or sell one of three revolver bullets for the coffee beans necessary to stay awake instead of losing a few precious hours sleeping. Perhaps you’ll sully your reputation by cutting out the kidney of a dead mugger to sell for a bandage. Furthermore, plague districts affect an immunity meter that, if you don’t manage it properly, gives way to an infection meter.

Players will have these variables hanging over them as they’re loosed upon the town in first-person perspective. Each new day provides new events, new conversations, and new leads on certain mysteries. On the way to investigate any such points on the map, you must constantly weigh the need to finish certain events before nightfall with the need to manage meters. Is it worth it to take a detour to a shop, to trade with kids playing in a yard, or to root through an abandoned house? After all, the way Pathologic 2 handles failure is harsh, reducing the health meter and occasionally subtracting from other statistics in the event of your extremely likely death, making the next attempt more difficult. And yet the very act of managing those stats or prioritizing certain tasks might also lead to missing others entirely, with resulting consequences. Other events seem designed only to waste precious time by diverting your attention from other matters, and you’re rarely told which is which.

The only thing that significantly hinders the game’s apocalyptic despair is the sense that its difficulties have been tuned a little too sharply. For as much as the game’s survival systems are designed to be overbearing and exhausting, they often feel unnecessarily harsh, somewhere beyond the point that has already been so clearly made. In such moments, you begin to wonder if scavenging wouldn’t still convey a huge amount of stress if food satisfied just a little more of your hunger, and if the meters ticked down just a little more slowly. The developers have promised an option to adjust the difficulty in the future, though in the game’s current state, it’s hard not to wish for a slight loosening of its grip around your throat.

All the same, there’s seemingly no “right” way to play Pathologic 2. Its design philosophy is totally antithetical to the mainstream, prioritizing the embrace of failure and the stirring of emotion over linear forward progress meant to feel traditionally “good.” Even before you’re tasked with saving lives, the game is already an intensely difficult, grueling experience, and the eventual need to treat infected people—whether they’re general patients you’re being paid to save or the named characters whose survival continues their role in the story—adds still another potential stop on a crowded itinerary, another place where funds and items may be diverted to pay a toll in human lives. For example, gathering herbs allows you to brew tinctures that can be used for diagnostics, but tinctures as well as antibiotics can be traded and sold just like anything else. So you’re forced to choose which lives are most valuable, and it feels horrible to end up choosing yours over and over again.

As these different elements converge, it feels as if a community’s entire being has been crammed into Pathologic 2. You grapple with the town’s economics, keep up relationships, save lives, and peel back what layers of the place’s dark history that you can. It’s one of the most stunning examples of a game as a cohesive whole, as every aspect is tuned for maximum stress and horror—an atmosphere of imbalance and overhanging dread that’s enhanced by the eerie, ever-clanging score. All the while, the abattoir looms large in the distance, its giant, dripping sacks of meat hanging uselessly on their suspended journey to the station. The doomed wander in full-body canvas cloths tied around them, and strange beings in ghastly crow masks with glowing eyes stand watch. The town appears lost in an endless ocean of straw-yellow grass. Few games are as transportive as this, and fewer still will leave players so utterly convinced that they never want to see such a place for as long as they live.

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

Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge Publisher: tinyBuild Platform: PC Release Date: May 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Draugen Undermines Its Mystery by Pulling a Shyamalan on Players

The game forsakes worldbuilding as it increasingly gives itself over to making the most digressive of statements.

2.5

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Draugen
Photo: Red Thread Games

The self-professed “fjord noir” whodunit Draugen certainly doesn’t lack for wild ambition. While that can be an invigorating impetus to the artistry behind a video game—or that of any creative work, really—it can also run great ideas into the ground. And there’s no clearer example of that than the latest from the Oslo-based Red Thread Games. Draugen is clearly mistrustful of its potential, stuffing itself with more and more narrative ideas until it practically asphyxiates, ending up as a sprawling and unresolved mess.

The game, though, makes a great first impression with its breathtaking setting and attention to detail. You play as a stodgy American named Edward, languidly rowing a boat along a meandering Norwegian fjord, backdropped by impossibly blue skies and snow-capped mountains. He’s accompanied by his young ward, Lissie, a boisterous and irreverent teenager who has a penchant for dropping quips and endearing jibes, and much to Edward’s chagrin. All the while, the tranquility of this scene is punctuated by a beautiful and evocative orchestral soundtrack, the melody eventually subsiding as the duo docks at a nearby island.

To Edward and Lizzie’s surprise, no one has come to pick them up. The island’s small village seems recently abandoned, almost as if its inhabitants vanished overnight. It’s an impression made all the more eerie by the fact that Edward and Lissie were invited to the remote island by its most prominent family. And as Lissie tears off toward their host family’s homestead and he trudges after her, Edward can only ponder exactly what’s going on in this place.

It’s a picture-perfect setup to a potentially enthralling mystery about the secrets that plague this remote island, except that Edward is troubled by another mystery he’s looking to solve: the disappearance of his long-lost sister, Betty, who he insists has been leaving him clues to her whereabouts. But the inquisitive Lissie, who very much has the moxie of a budding detective, picks up his slack, jumping at every opportunity to learn more about the island’s secrets, even egging Edward on with her unbridled enthusiasm and imagination.

Throughout, Edward is able to search his surroundings for clues to his host family’s whereabouts, with prompts tagged to specific items around the island and inside the family’s house, leading him to make more logical conclusions than those of his more instinctually driven companion. At its strongest, Draugen spins colorful banter from the collision of Edward and Lissie’s disparate approaches to investigation. Lissie, for one, is prone to pulling nonsensical theories out of nowhere, and the contrast between her youthful exuberance and his reserved demeanor feels natural and lived in—until it suddenly isn’t.

Draugen’s sense of atmosphere is rich enough to keep one riveted for two thirds of its campaign, but then the developers spring on us a narrative curveball that effectively kills their game’s momentum. And things go downhill from there. Twist after twist is introduced without seeming rhyme or reason, almost all of them completely untethered from the mystery behind the island. After a while, Draugen completely buckles under the weight of one too many revelations, which mostly revolve around Edward’s deteriorating mental state—a plotline so astonishingly convoluted that it raises more questions than it answers.

Moreover, the game forsakes worldbuilding as it increasingly gives itself over to making the most digressive of statements, which includes poking at the fallacies of the very detective genre to which Draguen belongs. This is most apparent in how Edward, in a moment of exasperation, tells Lissie that delving into the island’s mystery is a colossal waste of time, hollering at her, “This isn’t Agatha Christie. There won’t be a convenient set of clues leading to a tidy conclusion.” And Draugen seems only too happy to heed his words, given how many stones it infuriatingly leaves unturned. By the end, the impression that lingers most is that Red Thread Games didn’t have much of an endgame planned out in advance aside from wanting to leave players feeling as if all their detective work was for nothing.

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

Developer: Red Thread Games Publisher: Red Thread Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 29, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Void Bastards Drolly Weds the Roguelike with the Immersive Sim

It fits together disparate genres so perfectly that you wonder how nobody thought to combine them sooner.

4

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Void Bastards
Photo: Blue Manchu

The droll wit of Void Bastards is baked into the game’s very premise: A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners (more room that way) is stranded in a particularly nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime (having too many teabags, entering an office after business hours) continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure, a sprawl of files and forms and insidiously softened terminology from which the prisoners (who are referred to as “clients”) may cobble together the tools to return home, where things probably aren’t all that different anyway.

As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, which typically deals in randomized levels, permanent character deaths, and accumulable items. It contextualizes its inherently morbid repetition as, in the terms of this pencil-pushing dystopia, “expendable” prison labor, which allows Void Bastards to start shifting variables as early as the start of every attempt. Since each prisoner is a distinct entity, each comes with randomized traits, like being short (meaning they don’t need to crouch and are harder to hit) or never being attacked by one specific type of mutant. Others might smoke and therefore cough every so often, or shout in joy every time they pick up an item, both of which will alert nearby enemies to their position.

Such interactions between different variables, even as small as the way incidental noises affect stealth, typify the other genre that developer Blue Manchu patterns Void Bastards after: the immersive sim. In the image of System Shock, BioShock, and even the recent Prey, you have a variety of options to survive your first-person scavenging. Whether you favor stealth, traps, or running and gunning, the goal is to potentially take advantage of all the different systems at work. You can lock mutants in a room with a cluster bomb, or perhaps get creative with the Rifter, which warps an enemy out of existence until you bring them back in whatever location you wish. But those same systems can also work against you. For one, a ship with sporadic power outages might mean, at the worst possible moment, that you need to take a detour and give the generator a good kick. Both the roguelike and immersive sim are predicated on happy accidents, unexpected consequences, and the adaptation necessitated by both.

Void Bastards does, though, dramatically simplify the scavenging process to encourage a more frenetic style of play. Rather than fiddle with an inventory screen, prisoners vacuum up every single item inside green storage containers, which are marked on the minimap when you’re in range. This shift turns each excursion into more of an actual run, where you’re skating down metallic corridors, popping open containers, and blasting (or fleeing from) any enemies in the way. From there, the game piles on additional pressure points, like a limited oxygen supply or rifts that endlessly spawn enemies. You can certainly mitigate most of these risks—lock the doors to the rift, visit the oxygen resupply room if there is one—but it will take time, oxygen, and perhaps health if you run into, say, a powerful gun turret on the way.

These scenarios can even create further complications. What if the rift spouting nasty conglomerates of floating heads is in the oxygen room? The game is successfully designed to force you into split-second decisions and rethink your strategies, given the way its different systems interact in pressure-mounting ways. That said, the game doesn’t eliminate the immersive sim’s more meditative qualities so much as shift them to a separate planning stage. Prior to boarding a derelict vessel, you’re given a detailed readout of what to expect and allowed to choose equipment accordingly. It tells you enemy types and the quantity of each, what resources are plentiful, and what complications will arise, like power outages or radiation leaks. You even get a map of the ship in question, with items logically distributed among the named rooms; food, as you might imagine, is most plentiful in the dining hall.

The amount of forethought the game affords you is rare among roguelikes, which tend to introduce things by surprise. It imbues Void Bastards with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan.

However, this also means that Void Bastards is at its weakest when everything hums along smoothly. The game features a variety of absurd, amusing weapons and its distinctive comic-book art style is pleasing to look at, but a glut of smooth, uncomplicated runs can grow monotonous. The amount of strategy it affords you somewhat hinders its ability to tempt you off the path of least resistance, into the unknown and the sense of discovery that makes both roguelikes and immersive sims truly shine. But beyond this issue, what makes Void Bastards so thrilling is exactly what elevates other great nontraditional roguelikes like Slay the Spire and The Binding of Isaac: for fitting together disparate genres, in this case the roguelike and the immersive sim, so perfectly that you wonder how nobody thought to combine them sooner.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Blue Manchu Publisher: Humble Bundle Platform: PC Release Date: May 29, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Castlevania Anniversary Collection Turns Its Back to a Series’s History

It’s not greed in this day and age to expect publishers to respect and preserve their history. At this point, it’s an artistic responsibility.

3

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Castlevania Anniversary Collection
Photo: Konami

The prospect of the widely detested Konami of 2019 turning a jaundiced eye toward the best franchise the beloved Konami of yore produced was, rightfully, a frightening proposition. After all, this is a publisher that’s had no qualms about charging $10 for an extra save slot, or canceling entire games, regardless of positive reception or earning potential, based on a grudge against creators. Remember that Konani’s last major contribution to the Castlevania series was a pachinko machine. So, it’s almost a tiny blessing that the worst thing visited upon the Castlevania Anniversary Collection is a sort of benign neglect.

Out of the series’s history, the Anniversary Collection includes the three NES titles (Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), the first two Gameboy titles (Castlevania: The Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge), Super Castlevania IV (originally released on the SNES), Castlevania Bloodlines (originally released on the Sega Genesis and outside the United States and Japan as The New Generation), and the NES port of Kid Dracula, which was only released on Gameboy in the U.S. Want to play Haunted Castle, the obscure arcade game that serves as the mechanical basis for the first NES Castlevania? Or Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the beautifully ambitious PC Engine CD spinoff? You’ll have to purchase those, and a sizable list of other Castlevania titles, separately. Which is a shame, because it only takes about five minutes of playtime apiece to realize that the Gameboy titles are taking up valuable real estate here that could easily have been filled by better and more interesting games in this series. The same can somewhat be said of Kid Dracula, an old-school mascot platformer that’s adorable but ultimately expendable.

The big question to be considered with any sort of collection or remaster effort is one of purpose. Is it to bring a game visually or mechanically up to modern standards? Or is it to preserve its code? In recent years, we’ve seen Sega accomplish both with their Genesis Collections, Capcom with their Anniversary Collections of Street Fighter and Legacy Collections of Mega Man, and SNK with their 40th Anniversary Collection. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, for a collection supposedly celebrating a series’s 30th anniversary, the amount of effort put into this release suggests a relationship long dead.

There are countless stories and questions about the creation and advancement of the Castlevania series that remain untold and unanswered—stories you can tell either through the inclusion of the later games that showcase that evolution, or through the inclusion of ancillary materials that tell the story more directly. Many a developer has made that effort in bringing games of this age to modern players. Konami simply doesn’t, and it’s not for a lack of proof to draw from, given how different latter-day titles in this series became in the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era. There’s an entire thriving genre of video games co-named after this series. That alone is a grand reason to chronicle the how and why of this series’s legacy in thorough detail. Yes, putting the effort in to localize Kid Dracula certainly took work, but it’s also the least relevant game to said chronicle. This is a collection that feels loveless as a result, as it lacks so much context or respect for the place these games hold in gaming history.

Konami—partnered again with developer M2, a studio renowned for their work on similar compilations for Sega and SNK—takes a similarly haphazard approach to the more restorative aspects of this collection. Aside from a manual Quick Save system, a few perfunctory graphics filters, and screen frames, the games are, well, essentially ROM dumps. The only major concession to posterity at the moment of this review—post-launch content is planned—is a digital book, with rough concept sketches for all the games, and one admittedly excellent interview between famed series composer Michiru Yamane and Adi Shankar, show runner and executive producer of Netflix’s fantastic animated Castlevania series.

Even just the small favor of including one or two of the basic graphics-smoothing options that even the most rudimentary emulator can provide would’ve shown some level of forethought and consideration went into the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Putting aside that it’s being released at a time when archival efforts for gaming are in full swing, this collection feels almost begrudging of the series’s existence. Given Konami’s current rep among both those who play and develop games, it’s not a stretch to consider that that may be the case.

Thankfully, whatever enmity Konami holds toward its glory days as a developer doesn’t affect the games whatsoever. The meat of the collection is, of course, the NES, SNES, and Genesis titles, which have all held up extraordinarily well to time. The original Castlevania remains quite difficult, but there’s very little in the game that goes beyond “tough but fair” aside from an infuriating fight with the Grim Reaper toward the end. Simon’s Quest is the most troublesome of the bunch, in that it’s so obtuse in its clues and RPG elements that it’s essentially impossible to progress without the aid of a strategy guide. But it’s also the most academically fascinating game in the collection. Many of its puzzles, designs, and mechanics are easily decades ahead of their time, even if they’re poorly implemented into the game.

Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Bloodlines represent the series hitting a creative stride, the 8-bit Hammer horror trappings of the first two games making way for the series to develop its own identity. Dracula’s Curse and Bloodlines both bring a playfulness and mechanical ambition to the fray. The former does this via a grand experiment with branching paths and character swapping, the latter through a series of hardware-pushing special effects and optical illusions. Despite being a first-generation SNES title, Super Castlevania IV remains one of the system’s crowning achievements, especially in the sound department. Adventurous beats and melodies give way here to impressive facsimiles of an orchestral experience, featuring haunting choirs, evil organs, and ethereal, synth atmospherics that create a soundscape unlike anything else produced at the time. That, and the game’s organic, painterly aesthetic brings a dose of legitimate unsettling terror and dread far beyond the abstract pixels of the NES games or the bloodier but more cartoonish aesthetic of Bloodlines.

It’s not greed in this day and age to expect publishers to respect and preserve their history. At this point, it’s an artistic responsibility, and for a series as creative and ambitious as Castlevania, simply tossing a few barely touched ROMs at players and calling it a day can’t help but feel a little insulting, all the more so because the games presented in this collection make a rock-solid case that they’ve never been more worthy of the attention.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Developer: Konami, M2 Publisher: Konami Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 16, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Fantasy Violence, Partial Nudity Buy: Game

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Review: Layers of Fear 2, Though Terrifying, Clings Too Tightly to Its Script

The game’s first few acts are its finest, particularly for their strong sense of physicality.

3.5

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Layers of Fear 2
Photo: Bloober Team

Bloober Team’s latest, Layers of Fear 2, puts you in the shoes of an actor trying to find his or her character, in both the literal and figurative sense of that phrase. From a physical perspective, this means interacting with all sorts of horrific sights aboard a luxury cruise liner’s cabins: the dioramic creations of an enigmatic director (voiced by Tony Todd of Candyman fame), each designed to trigger the actor’s suppressed childhood memories. And from a psychological perspective, this means losing one’s grip on reality, as the line blurs not only between the role the actor has been tasked with playing and the actor’s past, but between a film production’s props and sets and what the actor becomes convinced he or she is seeing: hedge mazes, pirate coves, industrial cityscapes, and so on.

You’ve been hired to star in a film being shot aboard the 1930s-style Icarus Transatlantic, but over the course of the game’s five linear acts, it becomes clear that something else is happening on the curiously empty ship. Players set out from an increasingly dilapidated dressing room, exploring not just the ship itself—everything from the coal-lined engine rooms to the kitchens and first-class cabins—but a variety of on-board sets that have been built by the director, such as a pirate ship that’s surrounded by papier-mâché waves, and a recreation of a private screening room. Such visual touchstones and their recurring motifs are the layers of fear of the game’s title, opening themselves up to multiple meanings, like the playing cards that reference Alice in Wonderland but also point to a relative’s gambling addiction.

The game’s first few acts are its finest, particularly for their strong sense of physicality and connection to filmmaking methods and aesthetics. The simple puzzles require you to operate slide projectors until you’ve found the perfect shot, to use turntables to position your mannequin co-stars, or to follow chalk-drawn blocking notes across the various dioramic film sets. Even though some effects are logically impossible, such as the way flickering projector beams pierce solid walls, so that the ship’s cabins sometimes seems as if they’re bleeding pinpricks of light, the director’s manipulations are so clever that you convince yourself that it’s all somehow just a practical effect, or a really good perceptual illusion, as with the various doorways that vanish if you so happen to break your line of sight with them.

As Layers of Fear 2 reaches its conclusion, however, and the protagonist becomes more defined, we become disassociated from what should be the game’s most unnerving effects, like red-gel-lit hallways lined with squirming body parts. At times, it feels more like you’re watching a scary film from the comfort of your living room than actively participating in one. An early sequence that draws inspiration from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—its giant brass pipes, its columns of steam—is particularly strong for its function as a filter through which the actor processes whatever horrors he or she is actually seeing in the boiler room. But it’s not long into the game before it starts to feel as if films are being referenced as a matter of course. Indeed, no narrative purpose is served by the awkward mini-game in which you fly, and in hallucinatory fashion, the rocket ship from Georges Méliès’s iconic silent short A Trip to the Moon, or the appearance toward the end by the twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Still, even when these references and recreations fail to connect to the game’s grand design, they’re at least arrestingly vivid in their aesthetics and often quite unsettling. Layers of Fear 2 doesn’t explain or justify these sequences, which makes them all the more striking. You may ask, “What, exactly, have I stumbled upon?” By contrast, the many artifacts and collectibles that you pick up throughout are frustrating for the way they elaborate upon the game’s horrors instead of deepening them: Watch as art imitates life, they seem to say to you, specifically the fateful choices made by a brother and sister who once stowed away on a ship very much like the one you’re trapped on. These narrative moments provide a safe harbor from whatever else is more immediately going on around you, giving truth to the game’s binary choice to either “Lose the character, find yourself” or “Find the character, lose yourself.”

Because Layers of Fear 2 is a game about the madness that lies within one’s imagination, it’s no surprise that the moments that hint at unseen horrors—and the 3D audio is particularly effective on this front—are more unsettling than those that explicitly show them. The sequence in which you’re trailed by ogre-like footsteps is infinitely more unnerving than the one in which your pursuer is depicted as a fire-breathing titan, whom you can easily hide from. The more that Layers of Fear 2 offers players a peek behind the curtain, the more it leans on redundant trial-and-error chase sequences, effectively leaving psychological complexity in the rear-view mirror and making it harder for us to get lost in its illusory horrors.

The acting conceit of Layers of Fear 2 presents a compelling psychological dive into what it means to create a character, to truly imagine yourself as someone else. But each time players might be swept away into something truly unsettling, the director’s demands snap things back to a comfortable reality. For all its unsightly imagery, the overall arc of the game conforms to a familiar structure (especially in the ineffective New Game+ mode), forgetting that its scariest moments are those unexpected ones between the instructions given to you by the director. Layers of Fear 2 can be terrifying, but only when it stops clinging so tightly to its script.

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

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Gun Media Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: In Observation, the Ghost in the Shell Is the Player Itself

The setting of the game is the familiar stuff of science fiction, but the lens through which it’s viewed is not.

3.5

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Observation
Photo: No Code

The setting of Observation is the familiar stuff of science fiction: a space station dotted with airlocks and hatches and run by a voice-activated artificial intelligence. But the lens through which it’s viewed is not. You play as S.A.M., the aforementioned AI armed with a battalion of unblinking eyes: the cameras that line every one of the eponymous station’s hallways. Despite his constant watch, something has gone wrong aboard the station. The Observation has spun far off course, most of its crew is gone, and neither S.A.M. nor Dr. Emma Fisher, who appears to be the station’s only survivor, know what happened.

Besides observing, most of S.A.M.’s functions are doled out piecemeal for the exclusive task of progressing through the guided storyline. He can access things like laptops and terminals. He can open (and close) doors, and he can recite whatever data he’s been asked to find by Dr. Fisher to help unravel the mystery behind the station’s crisis. Though sci-fi connoisseurs may already have ideas about where the story will end up, Observation is, despite appearances, less a game about refusing to open the pod bay doors than cooperating with Dr. Fisher. S.A.M. isn’t one to cause problems so much as help solve them by dutifully performing different tasks.

If Dr. Fisher needs to broadcast a signal, for example, you’ll need to call up the ship’s map and access cameras in the room housing the astrophysics terminal. From there, you’ll use the terminal to look up the coordinates on a black-and-white image, send those coordinates to the communications screen, and then input the numbers manually. It’s not glamorous or even particularly challenging work, but neither is being a space station’s artificial intelligence; the game’s most complex tasks involve things like tracing a schematic for clues or piloting one of the spheres floating around the zero-gravity station to reach camera blind spots.

As rote and mechanical as these operations may be, they sink you deeper into your role as the AI. The game’s excellent interface design helps you feel at one with the environment through interactions that feel tactile. Adjusting camera angles is slow and accompanied by a faint hum. Spheres are likely to bump into objects since they’re a little unwieldy and don’t turn on a dime, and their camera view fizzles accordingly. Various text displays don’t look friendly, as a smartphone display might, so much as functional. They’re rendered in stark reds, whites, greens, and grays that evoke old technology—the loud clacking of keyboards, of numbers not entered so much as forcibly pressed in. The station isn’t exactlys old-fashioned, but its occasionally clunky software feels rooted in a tangible past, as if modernization has yet to erase the vestiges of technology conceived near the turn of the century.

And yet, playing as a computer isn’t the same as feeling like one. Engaging with the game means navigating its menus and devices by lumbering through human thought processes, relying on the inefficient motor functions of sausagey fingers mashing on controllers and keyboards. When moving inside a sphere, the labyrinthine station can be confusing to navigate without stopping to check a map, making it easy to float off down the wrong hallway.

To compensate for player awkwardness, Observation specifies that S.A.M. is too damaged to operate at full capacity, but it’s not quite enough to maintain the illusion. No machines ask you to interact quickly or skirt around a fail state. While this gentleness keeps the game humming along smoothly without constantly stopping to chastise players, it makes what are ostensibly the routines of a computer feel built to accommodate humans’ comparative sluggishness, preventing you from fully inhabiting a believable role. Frantic characters simply stand and stare while they wait for you to complete even the most time-consuming of tasks.

But the player’s presence isn’t a total loss since it gives the story room for subtlety. The development of S.A.M.’s emotions is understated and even totally peripheral to the central mystery because your personal reactions to characters, the solutions you uncover, and the attachments you develop stand in for what S.A.M. feels. Your emotions are his. As the plot escalates and the suspense grows, the momentum may slow as you fiddle with a door switch, but it never stops to explain character growth because you fill in the blanks yourself. S.A.M.’s development is almost taken for granted, allowed simply to be as a part of a larger story and compelling mystery buoyed by a unique perspective. There’s a ghost growing inside S.A.M.’s mechanical shell, and after just a few hours with Observation, it turns out to be you.

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

Developer: No Code Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Rage 2 Brings the Flair, but It Barely Fills Its Open World

It’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.

3

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Rage 2
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

The first Rage was released back in 2011, when it seemed like every game was painted in washed-out browns and grays—a visual shorthand for a world in ruin. Weirder and wilder out of the gate, Rage 2 is certainly more varied in that regard, with lush vegetation and advancements in Wasteland technology bringing modern and bracing fluorescent green and yellow glows to its environment, making for a much more colorful reality, with a striking pink visual motif cutting through almost every scene like a knife.

It’s two decades after the events of the first game, and there’s been enough peace in the post-asteroid-collision world of tomorrow for the Wasteland to develop something resembling an ecosystem capable of supporting life in the long term. And then General Cross makes his grand, violent return, wiping out the Wasteland’s seat of military power and quickly revealing that things haven’t changed as much in this world as its people would like to imagine.

There’s quite a bit of interesting world-building going on here, with the gruff warlords, scrappy survivors, and crackpot scientists of the first game joined by a motley transhumanist population that’s evolved into a slapdash DIY iteration of our modern life. Transgender bartenders and store owners are commonplace. Every human with missing limbs or other body parts seems to have their own personal, customized replacements.

The larger-than-life characters of the upper-classes range from Desdemonia, a Norma Desmond-esque vamp producing a daily televised deathmatch, to simpering scumbags like Klegg Clayton, who’s like the unholy cross between Kenny Powers and Guy Fieri. The critical NPCs who hand out the missions that advance the story are simple archetypes—save for one horrifying, Kuato-like living prosthesis—but people under their leadership are anything but.

The world of Rage 2 is a grand place to shoot things, but an even better place to simply people-watch for a spell. Strolling into new settlements and meeting these people is the most engaging part of the game, as the post-apocalyptic society feels very well conceptualized and lived-in. That said, it doesn’t take long after actually getting involved with missions and side quests to realize little has changed about Rage’s overall gameplay loop. As wonderfully realized as the world is, you only meaningfully interact with it when NPCs have missions to dole out. And those missions almost unilaterally involve driving to a specific place on the map, killing everything that moves, looting the place blind, and moving on.

The killing and looting in and of itself isn’t necessarily a detriment. There’s a lot of the same ethos going on here that fueled Id’s Doom reboot from 2016—a game that, for what it’s worth, I’ve come around to since my initial review. Every gun has a visceral heft and punch to it, bolstered here by a surprisingly vast collection of superpowers and nanomachine-aided combat enhancements. Mechanically, Rage 2 feels more like Crackdown than, well, the Crackdown game we got this year. Missions are rewarding enough where every couple of skirmishes nets you a much-needed upgrade or the materials/currency to purchase or trade for it. It’s become pretty clear in recent years how much we all need to treasure games operating at this level that aren’t abhorrently stingy with immediate gratification.

Doom, however, is a game content to just let the player plow through hordes of nameless cannon fodder for hours, and little else. It starts with the protagonist literally pushing character motivation and backstory aside so he can get some killing done. The setup is far more involved in Rage 2, and the world so much bigger, but it’s one that’s littered with distractions from the main quest, and characters whose motivations and problems beg for more nuance than Rage 2 is willing to provide. Roaming from place to place looking for either more things to kill or better, more efficient ways to do it is a huge waste of an interesting world, and if there was any lesson this type of game should have taken from the Fallout series—or, more broadly, from the Mad Max films it’s drawing so much inspiration from—it was telling dozens of tiny interpersonal tales using the deep pool of well-drawn characters at its disposal without sacrificing being a gory shootout in a desolate environment.

The actual, spatial waste just compounds the problem. Rage 2 is another in a sad class of open-world games that has trouble filling up that open world, and that’s a bigger problem when gameplay doesn’t meaningfully vary from “kill everything in sight.” There’s plenty of driving to be done, and there are races, just like in the first Rage. There’s also a tidy collection of armored vehicles to try out beyond the APC you get at the game’s start. These are the only activities that significantly stray from the one thing Rage demands from its players.

Still, it cannot be understated how good Rage 2 is at that one thing. It’s a game that works wonders in small, appreciable bursts of neon violence, engaging enough to see its comparatively brief story through to its conclusion. When it’s all over, however, it’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.

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

Developer: Avalanche Studios, id Software Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: A Plague Tale: Innocence Will Make You Squirm But Its Story Comes Up Short

It’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments.

3

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A Plague Tale: Innocence
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

French video game developer Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence imagines a 14th-century France ravaged by the combined horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Plague. After witnessing the murder of their parents by religious fanatics, Amicia De Rune and her sickly younger brother, Hugo, escape their family’s affluent estate, trying to avoid being caught in the machinery of the Inquisition. What follows is a visually impressive third-person adventure game that’s focused to an almost stubborn degree on the extent to which these two young children must stealthily evade their foes, not least of which the swarms of flesh-hungry rats that have overrun the country almost as a matter of course.

Light itself is the star of A Plague Tale, as the rats that emerge from the underground will swarm and consume any living being that doesn’t remain shrouded in light. Throughout, Amicia can use lit torches to safely walk past the ghoulish critters, but these burn out, as well as draw attention from Inquisition knights. Luckily for her, she also has a slingshot at her disposal. This instrument of destruction—and distraction—is your weapon of choice at the start of the game. With it, you can use rocks to knock lanterns from your enemies’ hands, or extinguish their torches, leaving them helpless to the hungry rodents that maddeningly linger in an area. Each scenario is presented as a puzzle where the objective is to figure out how to lure enemies to a certain spot so that they can meet their certain doom.

These sequences are consistently varied, with new tools introduced across the game, such as chemicals that can be used to lure rats away from Amicia and toward your human foes. Likewise, searchlights set up by the Inquisition to provide safe pathways can be moved by the player to plunge enemies into the fatal darkness, and provide new trails for Amicia and her brother to safely traverse. And using these varied gameplay mechanisms in tandem elicits satisfying results, especially when you’re trying to overcome the unusually strong AI, which doesn’t give up as easily as enemies in similar stealth action games like Metal Gear Solid.

Being spotted by the guards who patrol an area will almost always seal your fate, as the guards will relentlessly give chase, and groups of them will work together and cover escape routes to enclose Amicia, as well as call out your position to long-range enemies, such as archers. It’s a dynamic game of cat and mouse, and there’s pleasure to be had in trying to figure out how best to take advantage of A Plague Tale’s core gameplay in order to ensure your survival.

It’s unlikely that players have come across adversaries in a video game as squirm-inducing as A Plague Tale’s rodent swarms. Their movements are realistic, and especially horrifying as the rats overpower their prey in a blood-crazed frenzy, their beady little eyes just barely reflecting the light coming from some nearby object. No less detail-rich are the dilapidated castles and plague-ridden villages you come across that conjure a tense atmosphere that rarely lets up throughout the game. Inside abandoned homes, walls are caked with grime and blood, harrowingly evoking the violence that transpired there, while exterior ruins are cloaked in darkness and fog that obscures all sorts of horrors contained within.

Given how believable this plague-ravaged world is, it’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments. While the plot here is ripe for an examination of the destructive nature of Christian fanaticism, as well as the class divide between the De Rune siblings and the poor, criminal underclass they fall into, the game sidesteps deeper questions about the themes it raises. Even though it casts agents of the Inquisition as its primary antagonists, A Plague Tale is careful not to vilify any kind of faith. In fact, at one point it goes so far as to hastily introduce an archbishop character so that he can conspicuously state that none of the game’s evildoers are real Christians, at which point he’s quickly ushered out of the narrative. And perhaps as a result of the game refusing to label its villains as Christians, it leans on cartoonish, otherworldly depictions of evil taking root in medieval France. Throughout, clichés of power are carried unto absurdity, with the final boss reveal so ludicrous that you’d think we were back in the Eldritch-nightmare-themed world of Bloodborne.

It doesn’t help that A Plague Tale’s protagonists are also flimsily characterized, barely inviting the player’s emotional investment. A late-game chapter that takes place in Amicia’s head lifts more than one sequence from the Silent Hill series’s unnerving Nowhere, but it doesn’t land with any real effectiveness because the girl’s trauma still feels alien to us by that point. Indeed, by the narrative’s conclusion, the player will have spent over a dozen hours with the girl but still know little about her as a person. This is especially unfortunate given that Amicia comes across a few potential romantic partners and personal adversaries across her journey. Just as it seems as if A Plague Tale is about to fully open the door on a personal reckoning for the girl, it quickly closes it shut, ensuring that she remains a cipher.

Nothing in A Plague Tale, though, is as ineffective as Hugo’s characterization. The child’s behavior seems to pivot on a dime, either exhibiting the bearing of a helpless innocent or the wisdom of an old sage. In one scene, he throws a tantrum over the loss of family members; then, not long after, he bemoans how characters lie to him and refuse to trust him with information. Despite being terrifically voice-acted, Amicia and Hugo rarely exhibit the sort of conduct that realistically syncs up with their ages. And after a while, their lack of response to the horrors that befall so many innocent people in their midst comes to feel weirdly aloof. Of course, that flaw might be more accurately understood as the result of programming work that was less devoted to character work than making sure that the sights and sounds of rats tearing into human flesh struck the deepest of nerves.

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

Developer: Asobo Studio Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: Xbox One Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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