Monthly Archives: April 2014

Mario Golf: World Tour Review: Teed Up

Mario Golf: World Tour

It’s so strange that a franchise, after ten years of radio silence, would still have so much history to fall back on. Stranger yet is that it’s still so relevant. Mario Golf: World Tour mixes up a lot of what you recall from both its handheld and console brethren, but it also tries a few new things. Both end up with results that fall on either end of the spectrum, ranging from good to weird to just plain bad.

World Tour brings back the plumber to the green via Camelot Software Planning, the developer behind basically every other Mario Golf game (and Mario Tennis, too). And very much like those of yore and their contemporaries, the mechanics haven’t changed much. You still play the game of golf by aiming and then pressing a button to set up a power and an accuracy meter as they throb in and out of desirable ranges.

There’s a reason why they haven’t shaken that part of the game up, though, and that’s because it still feels good. It feels like the way to play a digitized, handheld version of golf. It’s nice, though, that they changed from the traditional bar meter to one ascribed to a ball on the bottom screen. You press to initiate, press again when the ball fills with color for power, and once more when it drains for accuracy. It is much easier to gauge timing with this visual.

With the additional post-swing presses of A and B, you can apply topspin and backspin so as to affect both the trajectory and landing of your ball. Since the mechanic’s inception nearly two decades ago, it has become a vital part of maintaining player interest in those moments when you know you’ve almost botched a shot. It does, however, have a strange side effect.

It renders the game’s camera basically useless. Which really is another byproduct of how laughably inaccurate the game’s trajectory markers can be. You see, the line that appears that shows the arc and eventual resting point of your ball is based on an ideal, flat plain, free of obstacles and terrain types. So once you get out of the bunny slopes, so to speak, it’s nigh unreliable past showing where your dreams lie.

But don’t get me wrong; it’s nice to have a challenge. I don’t think it’ll be very friendly to the younger crowd that either can’t handle or won’t stand for such mental calculations, but I like that Nintendo has somewhat eschewed its handholding rep in this game. It forces you to learn to feel how spin affects the ball, and to rely on a pleasurable combination of instinct and roughly hewn physics simulations in your brain.

Mario Golf: World Tour

It just comes back to the camera. It either focuses on the shown trajectory’s resting point (which is decidedly unfortunate) or it can’t figure out the elevation at which to show the ball, forcing you to fiddle with it manually just to see how you fared, or it has your character blocking much of the green and fairway or it tracks the hole instead of your ball so that you have no idea where you landed.

This is in combination with the fact that simply controlling the camera is a chore. You move along the horizontal plain with the analog stick but then use the touchscreen to move along the vertical. I can see where the metaphor of splitting the movement in the way you split between two analog sticks exists, but it seems that they forgot you’re holding a huge 3DS in your hands instead of a relatively tiny and ergonomic controller.

The courses themselves, though, are incredibly fun. More so than past Mario Golf games that I can remember, they feel an awful lot like the actual platforming levels of the main series than simple golf courses, arcade-style or otherwise. I don’t mean that you are jumping from place to place, bopping enemies on the head. I mean they have captured the essence of what makes certain Mario level types staples of the franchise.

Mario Golf: World Tour

Bowser’s castle, for example, is laden with traps and obstacles, just like the castle levels you remember. Others will be loaded with coins to prepare you for shopping and some with power-ups just because they want to throw you a curveball. It’s impressive how much of the indescribable Mario essence is captured in the courses.

Indeed, there are power-ups in the game. They’re called Item Shots, and they work just like you would expect. You hit them with your ball and then you get a power-up. A Fire Flower shot, for instance, will let you burn through any trees in your ball’s way as it flies through the air. Others will shoot it straight through walls and hills without a moment’s pause. They’re kind of weird considering you usually have to go out of your way to get them, but they can really spice things up nicely.

This is separate from the character progression, which there isn’t really much to speak of. Instead, you’ll simply be progressing your equipment, which you unlock by playing courses and then buying with your coins. You’ll get new clubs and clothes and balls, all of which have different stats. It makes up for the lost RPG elements of leveling characters by having meaningful equipment upgrades.

Mario Golf: World Tour

It loses some of its luster, however, considering how the unlocks are very much randomized. You could get four new items in the shop after four rounds of golf and each one is just another hat with the roughly the same stats. It begins to take its toll on you after a bit and you start to wonder what’s the point. Luckily, the robust Quick Play and Challenge Mode options also give up the goods as you play minigames and solve puzzles, so it’s not all bad.

The online connectivity is also quite substantial. You can play against other ghosts in the same way you would race against ghosts in Mario Kart, vying for the best score asynchronously. There’s even a ticker on the main screen that shows your friends’ scores in challenges, your upcoming unlocks, and more. It feeds deep into your competitive side.

There’s a lot to like about Mario Golf: World Tour. It plays and feels great, it looks nice, and it offers up some interesting challenges and minigames. But it also suffers from a super short and impressively stunted story mode, a mainstay of previous handheld iterations of the franchise. And that’s not to mention how mind-numbingly frustrating the camera can be. As it stands, though, Mario Golf: World Tour is very much a worthwhile game. Just keep connected and keep your expectations in check.

Mario Golf: World Tour

+ Getting a shot setup and out feels snappy and intuitive
+ Doesn’t hold your hand on harder courses
+ Some courses have an impeccable feel for the Mario oeuvre
– Incredibly frustrating camera
– Disappointing lack of RPG and story elements

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Mario Golf: World Tour
Release: May 2, 2014
Genre: Golf
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Available Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $39.99
Website: http://mariogolf.nintendo.com/

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Hitman Go Review: Sliding Scale

Hitman Go

Hitman Go appears to be the answer to the question of what happens when you through Agent 47 into a pot and let him boil. All of the marketable stuff like explosions and gunfights start to evaporate and simmer off into the air. It reduces down further and further until you’re left with this strange little experiment. But in the weirdness, it manages to capture the essence of what makes the Hitman series so good and, unfortunately, what makes it wearisome.

The trailer does an adequate job of conveying the tone of the game in its sleek and stylish shell, but here’s the gist of its mechanics. The game presents to you a series of boards in which you have to complete a main objective alongside some optional ones. You are still our ever present and bald Agent 47 intent on killing and collecting. But instead of a third-person view with guns and the occasional running, you’ll be moving along set paths.

Dotted along the boards (which are really diorama-esque facades of offices, backyard decks, and rooftops) are spots for you and your enemies to stand and move between. Each piece only moves when you move, effectively making you the gear that turns this clock. If you catch an enemy from behind or the side, you’ll eliminate him. If he moves onto your spot after your turn, you’ll be eliminated instead.

It’s an incredibly interesting distillation of the core concept of the Hitman games, which is poking and prodding until you find the most desirable/most attainable solution to a problem. Every enemy has his own behavior. Some only move in the direction they’re facing until they can’t go anymore and then they turn around. Others stand vigilant watch and smash you like a freight train if you cross their paths.

The entire ordeal of watching how patrols and movements line up as you shift around the board is very much identical to playing the full console versions, hiding in dumpsters and observing from a building over how guards and cops live in their environments. It’s a much more fascinating—and successful—translation of a Square Enix property than they’ve cooked up before. (I’m looking at you, Deus Ex: The Fall.)

The problem is that it also has the same issues that are inherent with the wait-and-observe strategy, which is when you miss your opportunity, you have to sit around twice as long as the stars align once more. Especially once you start trying to accomplish the secondary objectives like no kills and whatnot, missing your chance is one of the most frustrating things you can do given that there is no undo button. In the main series, you can just say fuck it and start shooting stuff, but with Hitman Go, you’re locked into the noble stoicism of hiding in a bush.

Hitman Go

Luckily, you don’t run into that problem very often. It’s really only a thing once you get into the later (but not super late) levels and try to do more than what is needed. The game has a great ability of layering things on rather quickly without overwhelming you. You’ll deal with guards with knives and you’ll get disguises and use trapdoors and throw rocks but it all works within unflinchingly consistent rules and a static framework, so the game manages to get you into more interesting predicaments with less handholding quickly.

Once you get to the later levels, you often find that every move counts, forcing you to think four or five moves ahead. Personally, it’s something that I don’t find as endearing so much as a chore, but that’s just a personal thing. I really like the trial and error process that allows me to continue after an error, not one that dumps me at a brick wall.

The aesthetic, though, is a great joy. The entire game is made to look and feel like a board game with a hyper-minimalist look and a slight tilt-shift effect on the entire viewport. Whenever you’re taken out, you just topple over and gently roll to a stop. When you eliminate an enemy, you’ll often find them placed to the side of the board, waiting with other discarded pieces. Even your movement input of swiping up and down, left and right mimics the feel of moving pieces along a board. It’s just great.

Hitman Go

As a mobile game, though, the payment scheme doesn’t seem too great. None of it is at all necessary (especially since we have the Internet and this is a puzzle game), but the things to be bought feed directly into progression. You can buy hints to replenish the five you originally start with and instead of earning goal cards to unlock new box sets, you can just buy your way in. It feels like buying a car and then the dealer still asking for money as you drive off the lot.

But that and the terrible test of patience infused in the practice of systemic observation aside, Hitman Go is a good game. It does so well what many other mobile counterparts of traditionally console and PC-based franchises fail to do, which is capture the essence of its lineage. Instead of knowingly failing to recreate a controller or mouse and keyboard experience, Hitman Go tried to find the foundation of the series, and it does so with aplomb. It’s just that it already—and always did—has a few cracks in it.

+ Looks fantastic and really pulls of the board game aesthetic
+ Truly captures the base experience of playing a Hitman game
+ Lays out its rules very clearly and expertly, allowing quick learning
– Inherently causes a lot of waiting and toe tapping
– Payment structure is really annoying and doesn’t feel great

Hitman Go

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Hitman Go
Release: April 17, 2014
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Square Enix
Available Platforms: iOS, Android (soon)
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $4.99
Website: http://hitman.com/

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Trailer Roundup: Watch Dogs, Dragon Age, and More

Trailer Roundup: Watch Dogs, Dragon Age, and More

Boy it’s been a strange week. The only other thing I managed to get posted was that review of Trials Fusion, which turned out to be kind of disappointing, just like my productivity. To be fair, there was a party bus involved and then bowling got weird and—well, you don’t want to hear about all that. You’re here for trailers! And golly do I have some for you. Here we go!

The Forest

Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope.

This game looks to have a structure similar to Epic’s Fortnite, except infinitely more terrifying. In The Forest, you’ve crashed landed on an island full of, uh, things that want to kill you. So you spend your days foraging for food and supplies and the night fending them off. But also your days because everything is awful. Oh, and it’s got Oculus Rift support if you weren’t already scared shitless.

Spaceteam Admiral’s Club

Those crazy Canadians. I met Henry Smith, developer of Spaceteam, last year at one of the PAXes. (He was wearing that captain’s hat then, too.) I believe him when he says he can get this Kickstarter‘s goals achieved. Blabyrinth and Shipshape, based on their descriptions and what he achieved with Spaceteam, sound like winners to me. Back him if you want. Or not. I just laughed pretty hard at the trailer when he was holding all those awards.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

I wasn’t really into Dragon Age II, but Dragon Age: Inquisition has me eager to get back into the franchise. It’s a fantastic-looking game based on the trailer, but hearing about the changes made to the combat gets my spirits up. The trope-ish amnesia-ridden hero is unfortunate, but the rest of the story sounds rife with excitement. Look for it October 7th.

Watch Dogs

This trailer is perhaps most interesting simply because we’re hearing in clear, concrete terms how multiplayer works in Watch Dogs. You wouldn’t believe the hassle I encountered and the runaround given when I tried to ask PR and devs specific questions the last time I was face-to-face with them. But now here’s nine minutes of what you’ll be encountering online in Watch Dogs and a mild middle finger to press regarding the past two years.

Also, “inconspicuous” is not the word I would use to describe that taco van. Also, wtf is a taco van? Also, the fact that you rarely see NPCs move in the same jagged patterns as players seems to really set off the That’s a Real Dude alarm quite easily, or at least in the first phase. But we’ll see. That mobile versus console thing seems super cool. Releases May 27th.

Evolve

“Trailer” seems like a severe understatement. This puppy is 52 minutes long! But gosh does this game seem rife with potential. Four versus one asymmetric gameplay where four hunter players are hunting one monster player. It seems cool, or it might just be the eSports-esque commentary going on over the video. Evolve launches in fall of this year.

Skylanders Trap Team

wut

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Trials Fusion Review: Blended

Trials Fusion

Sometimes you wonder why something exists. The merit of its place in the world is, at best, an oddity. The platypus, non-sweet tea, and, most recently, Trials Fusion. It’s not that it’s a bad game, but rather that we already have something just like it in Trials Evolution, and Fusion is far and away an inferior product. It takes the peak form of its concept and takes a step back in several considerable areas, though its core is still as compelling as ever.

Though you might not have played a Trials game before, you’ve surely played something like it. Your objective is to get from Point A to Point B—left to right in just two dimensions—on your vehicle of choice, though your mobility is hindered by both obstacles and physics. You use precise applications of acceleration, momentum, and leaning to get up nearly impossible inclines and sizable gaps.

With Trials, it’s motorcycles over destroyed bridges and serendipitously positioned planks. With Fusion, it’s more precisely futuristic buses and Tron-like platforms. Fusion, as stated by its opening theme song which recalls and implicitly compares Evolution‘s strangely addicting rap intro, is set in the future. Granted you’ll still be traversing the occasionally inexplicable jungle rooftop, but there is a considerable amount set in a crisp and clean future world.

It’s just that the aesthetic of it all feels rather lazy and forced. How do you make something feel like the future? What about flying cars, a metallic sheen to every surface, and imperceptibly robotic characters? It doesn’t do much other than give the game a significant lack of variety, especially when compared to the incredible breadth of nonsense Evolution threw at you.

Thankfully, the foundation of the Trials series is still intact in Fusion. While the beginning stages allow you to futz around pretty freely and experiment in what the physics of the game does and doesn’t permit, the later stages begin to force you to become nearly impossibly precise. Bunny hop from a narrow platform and then catch the edge of another ledge to flip over and drag yourself over to the finish line. It’s incredible how fun learning how not to fail can be.

It’s largely due to the bountiful checkpoint system, which enables a restart just before most major obstacles. And that’s where the genius of the Trials series kicks in. These games, despite the veneer of motorcycles and timers, are puzzle games. You find try one solution to the puzzle, realize it doesn’t work, and go on to another. And when executing the solution requires physical dexterity, it becomes pretty engrossing.

Trials Fusion

That unique combination of mental and physical acuity would be better serve the game, however, if it had any sort of learning curve. It kind of goes from dipping around the kiddie pool to saving Ashton Kutcher in The Guardian. Learning how to fail can be fun, but slamming your head against a brick wall isn’t. At that point you’re not discovering anything but instead just punishing yourself, excising an entire half from the formula for the franchise’s success.

There are, however, some sizable additions to said formula, though the results are quite mixed. For instance, there is something thrown into the courses that could be considered on some Platonic ideal a story, but it doesn’t matter a lick and is only barely coherent. Worse yet, it plays via a robotic female voiceover every time you play a stage. (You can turn it off in the settings, a revelation I made too late to save myself from madness.)

There’s also a trick system where you utilize the right analog stick to throw the rider’s body around the motorcycle with reckless abandon. It, like everything else in the game, operates purely on physics and relies zero percent on canned animations, which makes nailing certain tricks and interesting consideration in the same way Skate changed pulling off moves compared to Tony Hawk games. For instance, if you want to get your legs over the front, you have to go all the way around since otherwise the handlebars would catch your feet.

Trials Fusion

Developer RedLynx also threw in an ATV, but the word “inconsequential” seems to be an understatement. It’s basically a heavier motorcycle, but one that you would ride once, say “that was weird,” and never look back. It’s a strange development considering there are substantial portions that were included in Evolution that have been removed from Fusion. The Skill Game Circus has been replaced by single-serving achievement-like challenges like wheelie distance and whatnot.

Minigames have also been largely removed, though some still exist within the actual levels. And online multiplayer has been limited to purely local races. There’s a lot missing from Fusion, and there’s been some questionable additions thrown in their stead. From the trick system to the so-called story, there’s nothing new in Fusion to excite older fans. And then, from the stark and displeasing repetition of overcoming later challenges to the stale aesthetic, there’s not much to bring in new ones either.

If you do end up playing Trials Fusion, you’ll probably ask yourself why it exists as well. It offers less content with a higher price tag compared to Trials Evolution, and the content it does have is thoroughly infused with the ability to generated despair and frustration. Trials Fusion does, however, always serve up the same core the series is known for, requiring precision and dexterity to succeed. It’s just unfortunate that so much else of the game can’t hold up.

Trials Fusion

+ Conquering obstacles still feels amazing
+ Busting tricks is pretty fun
– A learning curve shaped an awful lot like a flat cliff face
– Future aesthetic comes across as uninspired

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: Trials Fusion
Release: April 15, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling platformer
Developer: RedLynx
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Single-player offline, two to four offline
MSRP: $39.99
Website: http://www.redlynx.com/games/trials-fusion/

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Trailer Roundup: Child of Light, Severed, Hitman Go, and More

Trailer Roundup: Hitman Go, Beyond Earth, Child of Light, and More

You know what? A lot of trailers come out each week. And you know what? You probably miss a lot of the good ones because there are just too many to sift through. So now I’m just going to watch all of them for you and tell you which ones are worthwhile. Because I’m a nice guy like that. Also because I have a lot of free time. So let’s get to it.

(Side note: I really don’t like this trend of using “announce” and “reveal” as nouns in press releases and video titles. There’s a totally appropriate word you’re looking for. So use it. Please.)

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Yeah, okay, so Sid Meier basically just does his thing now, but he’s gotten super good at it. Civilization V was incredibly fun and Civilization Revolution before that was a Civilization game that actually worked on consoles. But this trailer is also prettyyyyy slick. It features Christ the Redeemer a bit too much, but that slow reveal to the disgusting overpopulation of Earth and then the hopeful expanse upwards is done so well. Currently slated for third quarter of this year.

Miegakure

If this trailer looks like nonsense, that’s because it basically is. Or at least it is if you don’t understand how higher dimensionality works, or if you have never laid a finger on Miegakure, an indie puzzle game all about a science made to hurt your brain. If you read the description, it lays out in surprisingly tepid terms what it achieves, but fourth-dimension thinking is actually, like, really crazy.

Someone once dropped this nugget on me: we live in three dimensions. When we draw something, it ends up being in two dimensions. If we lived in four dimensions, we would draw things in three dimensions. Yeah. Chew on that today.

Child of Light

You’ve probably heard a lot of talk regarding Ubisoft’s role-playing platformer Child of Light lately and probably because of one single aspect: it’s a god damn beautiful game. Utilizing the same UbiArt Framework that powered the similarly gorgeous Rayman Origins (and, according to a French website, a new mobile-only, 2D Prince of Persia), its already gathering aesthetic fans but also gameplay fans. A young girl is lost in a waking dream with the single goal of being a woman strong enough to save her loved ones and—surprise!—it’s co-op.

Hack ‘n’ Slash

I’m just going to leave this year. You do with it what you will.

Severed

This is just a concept video, but given how much confidence I have in Drinkbox Studios after Guacamelee!, I’m already down for the set. The art style is similar (uh, fuck yeah), but the gameplay is apparently going to be very different. The combat is strictly gesture based, something akin to Red Steel, I guess, but it looks to be more particular and specifically reactive. I like where it’s headed.

Hitman Go

Perhaps the strangest departure from a given franchise since Ehrgeiz from Final Fantasy (and probably any Mario game outside of platformer Mario), Hitman Go is a turn-based puzzle game that still features Agent 47 stealthily killing dudes. Aside from the fact that it’s absolutely stunning in terms of visuals, it also looks like some pretty neat stuff. You can find out for yourself right now given that it’s out right now for iOS, so probably look for a review soon.

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Jazzy Conquests

Jazzy Conquests

Consider this totally not original thought: games are weird. An obvious statement, sure, but the ways they are strange are more interesting than the simple fact that they are. For instance, many of them force you to divide the concepts of literal action and gaming action; what you see may not always be what you’re actually doing.

A common example of this is any of the Uncharted games. Protagonist Nathan Drake, while being controlled by the player, kills hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys and suffers numerous injuries that he more or less shakes off with a Cheshire grin and a witty retort. But as soon as it is most impact or proper for the story, he takes a single bullet to the gut while facing down one dude.

And it’s supposed to be meaningful despite our nigh supernatural combative skills we’ve been showing off and honing for the past four hours because we divorce ourselves from the idea of literality in games. Much of what we do as the player (compared to what we see as a witness in cutscenes and whatnot) is taken on the level of a fish tale. The sea bass you caught was how big?!

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The crazier thing, though, is when the game forces you to mash those two halves of the metaphorical and the actual, reconciling what basically amounts to nonsense, a blatant lie, or some sort of disturbing fever dream. Anthony John Agnello over at Gameological wrote a bit about the oddities of the weirdest Zelda game in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He ruminates on the idea that the morality of Link’s actions in the game is decidedly gray, if not all the way malignant.

In Link’s Awakening, our familiar hero Link wakes up on the beach after a tumultuous storm ruins his seafaring jaunt away from Hyrule. He then embarks on a quest of listening to a giant talking owl on how to awaken an even bigger whale sleeping inside of an egg on top of a mountain. The issue is that the world Link has found himself in is all a dream inside the whale’s head.

So waking up the slumbering beast could spell the end of the world, its inhabitants, and, potentially, Link himself. Very obviously the question of the morality of destroying a world on the pure assumption that it doesn’t really exist is a great one and Agnello addresses it thoroughly, but consider the game actions of it all as well.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

Link still, in this game and those that come both before and after it, is a maniac that tears through people’s homes and possessions. He kills those that seek nothing more than to exist and have malevolent connotations by simply existing. He fights to keep living simply so he can die.

It’s a dark game, but most notably, one that has its two halves neatly overlapping in their themes. It’s something greatly missing from the non-adventure genre where the mechanics directly (instead of merely analogously or tangentially) drive the story. Think about how in every other Zelda game, Link’s virtuous task at hand of rescuing a princess or saving a kingdom excused much of what he did in your mind, from simple theft to unabashed murder. Link’s Awakening removes that veil and lays pretty clear the insanity of it all.

Of course, it would be terribly hard to create games without the ability to sit approximations next to precise accounts of reality. Even when we watch an action film and see the body count top 20, we often think that even that is a bit much. So when we play Far Cry 3 and somehow singlehandedly clear an island of hundreds of dudes that seemingly never stop wanting to get sniped and blown up, we further remove ourselves from the idea that our actions impact the world in any way beyond “progress.”

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

Perhaps we could do more with games that lift up that divider between literal and game action. Or maybe we get enough as it is. I don’t know if there’s a single right way to address it or if it even needs addressing, as if it were a problem that needs fixing, but I do know this: video games are weird, guys.

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Mercenary Kings Review: Kill Shot

Mercenary Kings

Despite what you might think from its shell, Mercenary Kings is imbued with an impressive number of inspirations from some rather varied sources. Its simple but delightful pixel art and recognizable format begs you to pigeonhole it as just another side-scrolling Contra wannabe, but it tries to do a lot more than that. Unfortunately, not all of what it does necessarily goes down as an achievement.

To clear things up, though, it is mostly what it looks like, which is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up that has an aesthetic throwback to similar, 90s-era run ‘n gun games like Metal Slug. It’s a bit light on the story, but the gist is that you are part of a hero squad called The Kings touching down on the secret island headquarters of CLAW (the bad guys, if you couldn’t tell). You go from left to right, shoot the people shooting you, and whammy.

Except you don’t just go left to right. You can go right to left and even in and out of tunnels that lead you to other areas to go any which way you desire. One of the cool things about Mercenary Kings is that it is exceedingly non-linear. Your objective may lie in one particular direction, but the number of ways you can get there is numerous.

It makes the rather slim number of levels easier to swallow because you will rarely go through them the same way twice. Either by necessity or by choice, the varied paths you can—and will—take add enough freshness each time to make it worthwhile. It allows you to make the conscious decision to either beeline it to the end to make it before the timer runs out (every mission is timed) or explore and find gun parts, bonus objectives, and other sundry goodies.

Unfortunately, that also plays into one of the game’s nagging points. The bosses of the game have a tendency to cut and run. This is a direct play into the stylings of Monster Hunter where the giant beasts you would fight would run and you would have to track them. It’s easier here since it’s just two dimensions and the map marks the bosses’ possible locations, but my god it is super duper annoying. It was actually almost enough to make me quit a few times.

Strangely enough, though, it also increased the joy of bringing down the big baddies in the end. It wasn’t enough to make it worth the running around in circles over and over and over again, but it was a unique side of victory you rarely get in video games. If anything, it made me understand why people like Monster Hunter so much.

Mercenary Kings

But along the way, you will have plenty of time to get familiar with your gun, and I do mean your gun. You’ll collect parts as you play the game and cobble together your own weapon. It has a huge impact on the way you play the game. A machine gun-style body with a shotgun barrel? What about the opposite? You could have fast, powerful shots that are wildly inaccurate or slow, pattering rifle or anything other number of things. Your unique gun recipe will define your moment-to-moment combat scenarios, and it’s nice to see a game allow tangible consequences from user choices.

The combat itself is also quite good. As more enemy types get added to the mix (and there are a lot), those moments of laying on the trigger or mindless jumping over missiles will slowly fade out and let a frenzy take over. Active reload, strangely nimble robots, little buzzing drones. They will eventually come to consume your whole attention. It’s impressive, though those drones get super annoying. Enemies that slowly drift in and out of your eight shooting directions always become a hateful bore in these types of games, and this is no exception.

The bosses themselves present a different challenge. They hit, like, super hard. They hit hard enough to where you need to plan your health kit usage around them from the start of the level. But their attacks begin incredibly predictable once you uncover their highly repeatable patterns. Not exactly my cup of tea, but it is a refreshing change from the courtesy Mario-style three-hit bosses.

Mercenary Kings

If you add another playing into the mix via co-op, you’ll see something else relatively unique to the world of video games. Because of the heavily parallelizable structure of the game (find where the boss went, complete side objectives, etc.), you and your buddies can strike out in any way you see fit. Being able to break apart at any time and know that everyone is still able to contribute in a meaningful way was a great way to play.

Moving, however, isn’t topnotch. Shooting itself is fine, but there’s a strange heft to jumping that feels either like unwitting lag or a decision to make it feel like these mercs actually require hunkering down before launching into the air. Either way, it makes the platforming (and there’s a good amount, though nothing terribly demanding) and some battles feel sluggish.

Which is too bad because Mercenary Kings was well on its way to being a much better game than it is, and feeling like you have total control over your character goes a long way. It does a lot right and a lot to set itself apart from being just another side-scrolling shoot ’em up, but not enough of those two overlap to make Mercenary Kings much more than just an okay game.

Mercenary Kings

+ Pixel art and animations are all around fantastic
+ Crafting and experimenting with gun crafting to find your right weapon is great
+ The moment-to-moment combat gets pretty interesting
– Bosses running away from you is incredibly tedious
– Moving in the world doesn’t feel so hot

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Mercenary Kings
Release: March 25, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling shoot ’em up
Developer: Tribute Games
Available Platforms: PC, OSX, PlayStation 4
Players: Single-player offline, two to four online
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.mercenarykings.com/

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Betrayer Review: An Odd, New World

Betrayer

I played Betrayer back in October when it was just a part of Steam’s Early Access program. To quote, “I loved the first 10 minutes of Betrayer. And then the game part of it revealed itself.” And I stand by that. The first 10 minutes of Betrayer are beautiful and moody and an excellent piece of atmosphere and environment trumping overt storytelling. Then, much like its mechanical divide between night and day, Betrayer has a hard time deciding what it wants to be, and it suffers for it.

It is a decidedly ambitious game, which is not surprising since it comes from more than a few ex-Monolith fellows at Blackpowder Games. On a few occasions, you get the feeling that many of its problems would have been solved by throwing more money at it like in their non-indie days, but not here. Here, in the midst of telling an obtuse tale of a shipwrecked survivor in the 17th century, set somewhere in a densely forested area in the New World.

There’s a significant supernatural curve thrown in, though. Something strange has happened, and you eventually happen across a mysterious, scarlet-clad woman; more than a few zombie-ish Spanish conquistadors; and a bell that will shift your world into one full of ghosts and other such scary things. All along the way, you’ll uncover notes, letters, and evidence of a world that as unequivocally gone to shit.

The most striking (and perhaps best) thing about Betrayer is the way it looks. It is a hard thing not to notice. The game is presented almost entirely in black and white, save for accents of red. But it’s the way the game moves that is so strangely soothing yet unnerving. As the wind blows, the hard, striped blades of grass sway as the branches of the spotted trees sway overhead. It would be relaxing if it wasn’t so imbued with paranoia and fear.

Which, I guess, shouldn’t be surprising since Monolith made a name for itself by creating intensely moody games like F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins. The lively, natural appeal of the world contrasts with the stark, empty locales as much as the black stands sharply against the white. It feels unsettling. Even the rutilant archer, the closest thing you have to a friend, is an imposing figure, never once appeasing the sense of being a misplaced traveler.

The gameplay feeds right into that, being incredibly brutal with death often no more than a few musket shots away. It’s a taut experience, one akin to Dark Souls in that every encounter is a risky, almost harrowing one that could shuttle you back to square one. You see, when you die, your body drops along with all of your loot. Then, you have to make a corpse run, but if you die before you recover your goodies, it all disappears.

Betrayer

That makes combat a frightening affair. You don’t lose your weapons or ammo, but all that gold is what you spend on upgrading the former and buying more of the latter, and you will need to do a lot of both. You need to best their Spanish armor, which often repels weaker arrows and armaments (with a hilariously cartoonish hit-in-the-head-with-a-frying-pan sound effect, which I still can’t tell if is on purpose). And you need to replenish your scarce ammunition stores.

The limited ammo is part of what makes the combat interesting. When you’re caught in a massive battle between a few conquistadors or floating skulls (more on that in a second), you will find yourself trying to pick up arrows and tomahawks as you fire them. And pray they hit. It forces a deadly precision on your hand that you rarely experience in a first-person shooter.

The problem is that there are many times when this is not how you fight. Many times, you can see your enemy from a mile away since they are often highlighted in red. This gives you a chance to mask your movements with the wind and tall grass and take potshots from behind cover as they scramble to find you. It is the optimal solution, but it is also the most boring one.

Betrayer

For a game that relies so heavily on open-ended exploration (make no mistake as there is a ton of just wandering around), only at “night” does the dread of encountering those unseen exist. You see, in the first fort you come across, there’s a bell that you can ring. It sounds off, pauses, and then the world dramatically and suddenly shifts into a dark nether version of itself where the soldiers become skulls and skeleton dudes pop out from the ground.

And, for the most part, that is the only time you are genuinely surprised by enemies since they can come out of the ground or from anywhere, really. The first time is actually a very nice jump scare that, despite experiencing it months ago, still got me. That means that half of the game is spent sneaking around and waiting for AIs to reset when the most interesting bits are the actual, meaty encounters that have the potential to result in meaningful death.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t so much of that involved in simply getting from place to place. Often times, to find your next objective, you use a severed ear to hear a distant, misplaced sound. You then pivot in place until the sound is directly in front of you, and you walk. And then you see dudes in front of you and you stop and look for a way around. And then you realize you can’t go around so you find a hiding place and carefully fire off arrows until the two guys patrolling are dead after 10 minutes of methodical murdering.

Betrayer

Over and over again. For as much as I would love to find out more about what happened in this land, a lot of it doesn’t even hit the bar of ancillary and instead just hovers somewhere near disappointingly fruitless. A lot of the notes you find really just say how sad someone was when someone died or how hard it was to be alive. Probably all true, but WHAT ABOUT THE GHOSTS. Granted, you do find answers to that question as well, but after a few hours of going back and forth between ghosts and graves and talking to understandably reserved specters, it gets really tiring.

That’s what I mean when I say this game doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are moments when it is emotional and scary in just the right, imprecise ways that great horror games achieve. And then it embeds a combat system that very obviously has the potential to be scary and high stakes in its own right. And then it throws in a supernatural story that you have to unfold by collecting discrete clues and scraps of a time you narrowly missed.

And at any given point, two of those are undermining the third. The blend of the mechanics and design of all three, given more time, could have possibly been massaged into a more cohesive product. (That’s what I was talking about when “more money” would have probably helped.) I’m not saying that’s a definite outcome, but it’s likely. As it stands, Betrayer is a game that has its moments, but they’re all moments from three very different types of games. It’s just unfortunate that it all go lumped into one.

Betrayer

+ Beautifully striking visual presentation and impressive audio work
+ Combat has its moments of being utterly terrifying and nerve-racking
+ The opening sequence, the first bell ring, and the first encounter at night
– Fights that are just waiting in the bushes and taking potshots
– Objectives that very often boil down to fetch tedious fetch quests

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: Betrayer
Release: March 24, 2014
Genre: First-person action
Developer: Blackpowder Games
Available Platforms: PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.blackpowdergames.com/about/

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Monument Valley Review: New Perspective

Monument Valley

Mobile games are chockfull of potential in spite of and due to their platform’s limitations. When they hunker down and focus on one or two key aspects, they have a chance to find what their peak forms can take. Ridiculous Fishing, for instance, excelled at giving the player tangible, progressive upgrades free from frustration or boredom in its schemes. Monument Valley does the same thing, honing its aesthetics and puzzle design to a delectable, masterfully fine point.

Monument Valley comes from Ustwo, a small studio in London who previously gave us Blip Blup and Whale Trail. It tells the rather obtuse yet portentous tale of a princess named Ida who is seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness for what, exactly, is slowly unveiled through the course of the game as you guide Ida through a series of increasingly complex puzzles.

Most of what you need to do is get from point A to point B, tapping the screen to get Ida where you want her to go. If a path along a single plane exists, then she’ll get there. Or rather, if a smooth path exists along a single, possibly deformed plane exists, she’ll get there. You see, much of what you’ll be traversing is essentially M. C. Escher-style structures. (There’s even a recreation of Escher’s “Waterfall” in the game.)

In the first puzzle, for instance, you have to get from one level to another without any ascending functionality. But, by lining up two walkways, they will look like they’re connecting, and that’s good enough for Ida. And you’ll soon be walking along walls and upside-down and spinning whole structures as platforms and doors come in and out of pseudo-existence.

This, however, is where Monument Valley shines. Just as Ida’s tale revolves around forgiveness, the game itself is very much about getting the idea of making mistakes out of your head. It’s certainly not easy solving all of these puzzles, but they are designed in such a way that even experimenting and seeing what something does all points you towards the solution.

Early on, it forces you for no particular puzzle-related reason to walk along a wall. It does, however, teach you that it’s something to keep in mind later on. And soon, puzzles involve rotating platforms to get you on walls and ceilings to get to a button or exit. It has a very relaxed but confident and competent sensibility of educating the player. It’s surprisingly refreshing in that way.

Monument Valley

Of course, the game’s visuals are hard to ignore. It is simply a stunning piece of digital art. There are subtleties to gradually find and add to the list of things to love. Ida, for instance, will look at where you’re touching, and as she goes up or down stairs, briefly glance down to check her footing. And her design has a real “oh how did I not notice that?!” thing going on for when you finally beat it.

But the colors are simply incredible. They’re warm in a way that makes you feel…secure, yet otherworldly. Many of the hues of off-white and faded purple are so foreign and rare in our knowledge of natural aesthetics, but they’re arranged and saturated in such a way to give the sensation of an emanated emotion. You can feel that what Ida is doing has great meaning just through the way the game looks.

The sound design is similarly impeccable. As you interact with rotating platforms and spinning staircases, a jingle of sweeping wind chimes and bells accompany your movements. It gives an aural connection for you to latch onto from you sitting on your couch or on the bus to this oddly dire yet whimsical world. And the music is pretty much spot-on. I will certainly be leaving the game running just to listen to it.

Monument Valley

By its very enigmatic nature, though, the game’s story is somewhat hazy. I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end, but it certainly felt poignant. I mean, I think I have a good idea, but it will absolutely generate discussion between others, which is pretty great when it’s just full of impossible geometry, crow people, and a princess. The world feels lived in and considerably genuine. I wish I knew more about it.

And a very quick aside: there’s a moment late in the game where there’s a, uh, thing. It matches your movement and, as far as I can tell, is the only one-off puzzle mechanic in the game. I logged it in my brain, ready to utilize the experience for later, but then I had nothing to use it on.

Which is to say that Monument Valley is quite the short game. I played it all in one sitting over the course of two-ish hours—granted, I didn’t intend on it, but it’s just so damn easy to block out the real world when you play this game—so for the price of $3.99 in the App Store, you might feel a bit hesitant on giving this one a whirl.

Monument Valley

Well don’t. Monument Valley is, despite its petite platform and heroine, a substantial game. I’m still thinking about it and I finished it days ago. It marks another notch in the belt for mobile games in showing that in focusing a studio’s attention on a few facets, it can create a masterful stroke on the industry’s overflowing canvas. Monument Valley is a beautiful, subtle, and unarguably worthwhile game. Don’t let it pass you by.

+ Looks ridiculously beautiful
+ Sounds like where childhood dreams live
+ Puzzle design is simply impeccable
+ Oddly important-feeling tale of redemption (maybe?)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Monument Valley
Release: April 3, 2014
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Ustwo Studio
Available Platforms: iOS, Android
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $3.99
Website: http://www.monumentvalleygame.com/

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review: Cap Grows Up

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Of all the Marvel heroes we’ve thus far encountered, Steve Rogers has the greatest potential. From weakling to tough guy to Captain America and now finally a man ripped from time and thrust into the unimaginable, he’s the only one to have change from within but also visited upon him that he cannot fully cope with. And with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we see that potential fulfilled with gripping themes, grounded yet attention-grabbing action, and actors that embody their franchise characters better than they ever have before.

Taking its place in the chronological order of the Marvel film universe, Cap has been dutifully working under S.H.I.E.L.D., as we see in the opening action sequence where he and Black Widow oversee a ship rescue. This opens up the complication of the film where it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D., under the watchful eye (ha!) of Nick Fury and senior official Alexander Pierce, has been building three massive helicarriers. Acting largely as drones, they aim to be the greatest deterrent to terrorism with NSA-style oversight.

From the get-go, you can tell this is a much more mature version of our previously bubbly, cartoony Captain America: The First Avenger. In that one, we have a bad guy that pretty much looks like the devil while the patriotism dial is turned all the way up to Fuck Yeah. Here, we have a much more complex look at a very complicated man.

A visual nod towards this idea is Cap’s revised uniform, looking less like the stars and stripes interwoven with Kevlar and more like moderately zealous tactical gear. The whole film has a much more tempered flair to it, grounding the modern themes and making them much easier to take in. With NSA drama still in the news and the name Snowden still fresh on our tongues, it’s easy for this all to hit just a bit too close to home with its questions on security, freedom, and sacrifice.

This does lead to one of the few disappointments with the film, however. In the early parts of the film where The Winter Soldier is introduced, it appears that Cap is addressing both his physical and philosophical limitations. It’s an interesting thought because as an Avenger, he is one of the least physically capable while one of the more strategically viable. And in his own microcosm, he is the sole savior through both might and mind.

Now, as he encounters a metal-armed fellow who not only stops his signature shield throw and sends him reeling with a counterattack, could it be that he is now both irrelevant as a fighter and a leader? He potentially has found his match in a domain he should have secured and his ability to lead is already proven to be undermined with Fury’s own ostensibly personal agenda.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This would have been a deliciously gritty theme for the movie to tackle, but instead it choice relevancy, which isn’t a bad choice, but it certainly highlights a failure to fulfill tangible potential. And then, towards the last half hour, it seems as if it remembered that, as a movie, it has to be a summer blockbuster. It eschews its nuanced and personalized characterization of freedom versus security and replaces it with explosions and general technofear.

Those explosions, however, are pretty damn great. In fact, as a direct consequence of the more subdued appeal of the film (along with directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s desire to infuse the movie with the sensibilities of a 1970s conspiracy thriller), the action feels more dire than ever before. Of any Marvel film thus far, the threats in The Winter Soldier feel dangerously real.

The first major fight on that opening ship sequence feels like serious trouble largely because you don’t see bombastic reaction shots and thrown bodies but because you see hits being taken and dished out with a balance of skill and savagery. It’s pretty fantastic. Part of it is also the incredible sound design. I don’t know what a vibranium shield would sound like getting stuck in concrete, but I imagine they got pretty close with this.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

You combine that with very real, non-digitized action and you get terrific sequences of head-rattling shenanigans. There’s a scene where Fury gets to shine on his own and the entire thing feels dramatic on a level that is pretty much sweat-inducing. Real cars getting blown up sans fireworks and a character who, without any sort of supernatural predilection to staying alive, is getting worked. The danger is real.

Of course, that can also be greatly attributed to the actors being thrown into these predicaments. Chris Evans as Captain America really pulls off the look of a man fully confident in his own abilities (that elevator scene, jeez) but unsure of where he sits in the world with them. And Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow continues to bring a great blend of snark, seduction, and kicking ass.

Anthony Mackie is introduced as Falcon, and though his past is shamefully but understandably glossed over, Mackie manages to make just about everything he says the funniest thing in the movie while maintaining a gravitas greatly needed by a fellow counseling at the VA for PTSD. Of course Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is great, bringing to mind his past political thriller in Three Days of the Condor.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Winter Soldier, though, is somewhat of a letdown. Naming his actor would be a spoiler, but comic fans already know what’s up, and they’re probably excited. Unfortunately, he’s mostly a conduit through which Cap has a more interesting physical match when really the backstory and implications thereof, while hinted at, are almost altogether missing. It’s understandable since it’s quite a dense bit of drama and history, but if you’re a comics fan, know going into this that you won’t be seeing the complications and resolution you would probably hope for. The portrayal, however, is quite menacing and well done.

In fact, there’s a general sense here that is unfortunately pervasive in all Marvel Cinematic Universe films have, which is that certain things are brought in and let go or squashed down in service of the greater goal, which is The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Characters are introduced for little to no reason and it has to bow to a canon not entirely its own while working towards one it will eventually be a part of. It doesn’t ruin anything here, but it certainly gives an oddly…strategic sheen to the proceedings.

It just can’t overtake the growth the film has imbued into our genial, ripped Captain. Matured to the point of addressing real, genuinely interesting themes and not simply clashing two action figures together to see if good can once again trump evil, this is an unseen but absolutely essential turn for the character. With incredible, slap-you-in-the-face action and a taut, darker story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

+ Addresses modern concerns with a character made to embody and challenge our ideals
+ Real, gritty action that feels genuinely dangerous and full of consequence
+ Actors that understand how to highlight their character’s strengths and utility
+ Sound design during the action (and out of the action) is fantastic
– Disappointing follow-through on the concept of limitations and leadership

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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