Category Archives: Main

The Mage’s Tale Review

Virtual reality is in a bit of a tough spot. While the medium has enjoyed a lot of mainstream visibility of late, few VR games have actually found broad success. The Mage’s Tale is meant to be Oculus’ new tentpole–a robust virtual-reality adventure that will sell us all on the magic of the technology and the ever-elusive sense of “presence.” Unfortunately, The Mage’s Tale is a fractured adventure packed with minor technical oddities, poor voice work, and shallow dungeon crawling.

The tale opens with the kidnapping of your master at the hands of an evil sorcerer, and you, the lowly apprentice, must embark on a rescue mission. It’s every bit as hackneyed as it sounds. Making the opening even less appealing, the mage’s familiar–an obnoxious magical creature that’s along for the ride–immediately berates you for your incompetence. Unfortunately, he’s your teacher, carrying you down the path of learning the skills and spells you’ll need to exact vengeance.

That’s the core appeal here, too: crafting spells and using them within a virtual space. That portion, at least, works well. The Oculus Touch controllers temporarily create the sensation that you’re in control of magic, momentarily fulfilling dream of being whisked away to star in your own mythical adventure. Thanks to solid motion controls in VR, actions are intuitive: you grab potions and knock away obstacles with your hands, you look around as you would in the real world, and there’s even a nifty menu system based on the positions of your hands that sells the illusion that you’re a real wizarding student.

No Caption Provided

As you explore dungeons, you find various items to boost or augment your spells (one mod causes your fireballs to bounce around the room) to add some variety. It’s meant to create the sense that you’re learning magic and genuinely exploring and crafting new ideas or techniques on your own instead of simply following the rote, by-the-book rules you’ve learned up to that point. Some mods, like one that lets you guide spells remotely, change some functionality. But even then, their application doesn’t meaningfully alter gameplay. A fireball is a fireball, essentially. It doesn’t help that many are cosmetic too, adding little more than confetti and flair to your casting. By the end of an 11-hour run, the rudimentary spell variety more than takes its toll.

Even worse, movement during combat is a drag. Dodging is one-note–you’ll be bouncing between two or three positions as you evade incoming spells and arrows from fantastical goblins and the like–and each time you do, you suddenly appear in a new spot. Immediately. This avoids the common VR problem with motion sickness–due to artificial locomotion via a joystick–but only for a time. Whenever combat really gets going (which, in this case, could be two or three enemies in the room all attacking at once), you’re like a walking glitch, stuttering through the world. It trades the immediate discomfort of gradual movement for the more disorientating and equally unsettling feeling of constantly appearing in and out of existence in different places.

The actual dungeons don’t fare much better. There are ten different environments, yet they never feel distinct despite unique layouts and enemy types. Puzzles are remarkably similar, for example. Often you’ll enter a room, and you’ll need to kill some enemies and find a switch. Flip the switch, and the door opens. That’s not all of it, certainly; one puzzle tasks you to align symbols around the room to match those found on a wall that revealed with a magical MacGuffin, but that’s also not too far removed from Skyrim’s “rotate these columns to match the door, then pull the lever”–just in virtual reality. That novelty works a few times, but it wears painfully thin by the end.

No Caption Provided

If there’s one element of The Mage’s Tale that shines, it’s (occasionally) the dialogue. But even that comes with qualifications. You’ll bump into some silly situations that play with the absurdity of the world from time to time. Talking walls are a staple, and they usually have weird problems. One wall seemed perplexed by the very existence of humans, and was annoyed by my zipping about (walls don’t tend to move much, after all). Another was drowning due to a flood, and tried to drink enough water to save himself, but ultimately needed my magic to drain the water. They (alongside your master’s familiar) form the bulk of the characters you’ll meet.

The walls are delightful and cute, serving as a solid underpinning for the game’s absurdist humor. The familiar, however, isn’t–and, unfortunately, he’s far more omnipresent. He follows you and complains about absolutely everything. And not just in the normal plucky sidekick way–his vitriol is crafted to get under your skin and goes well beyond excessive. He ruins almost every puzzle by explaining it and then calling you an idiot for not understanding. It is the worst kind of artificial humor: a dry cynicism that masquerades as cleverness and wit.

Neither a groundbreaking VR experience nor a strong dungeon crawler, The Mage’s Tale ultimately squanders its potential. It offers a couple of high points–some jokes do hit their marks from time to time–but there are so many problems, and there’s so little of substance to drive the experience forward, that The Mage’s Tale feels more like a shallow experiment than a reason to get excited about VR.

Ever Oasis Review

Ever Oasis is a cute hybrid RPG that attempts to mix Animal Crossing-like town building with an adventure along the lines of The Legend of Zelda. Its compound formula is appealing on paper, but for a while, Ever Oasis falls short of its potential. Its simplistic narrative, cutesy visuals, and basic town-building mechanics test your patience in the beginning. But when its principal ideas are given a chance to take root, it sprouts into a surprisingly absorbing adventure that consistently rewards your time and efforts.

Set in a hostile desert world, you play as a young creature called a Seedling, who with the help of a water spirit, is capable of creating a magical safe haven known as an Oasis. Your adventure begins in ruin as your brother’s Oasis is attacked by Chaos, an evil force that seeks to devastate and corrupt all living things. It lays waste to the area and its inhabitants, but before Chaos can harm you, your brother teleports you to safety in the hopes that you may survive to create a new Oasis and gather up the strength to defeat Chaos.

Ever Oasis’ main story never stretches too far outside its basic premise, rarely expanding upon its rudimentary good-versus-evil dynamic. Despite the stakes set by its grim introduction, it predominantly maintains a happy-go-lucky attitude in the face of conflict, and you seldom get a sense of how Chaos has gripped the land or its people. There are a couple moments where it’s expanded upon, like the plight of the Lagora, a race of squirrel-cats who once cultivated a lush forest to produce water, only for it to be consumed by Chaos. Details like this offer valuable insight into the game’s world, but they’re too few and far between.

As a result, it isn’t the narrative that pulls you into Ever Oasis. Rather, it’s the slow process of building up your personal desert refuge that proves to be the game’s most rewarding element. You expand your Oasis by convincing travelers to live there. This can be done by fulfilling their requests, which typically range from fetch quests to escort missions. Successfully convincing travelers to become residents of your Oasis feeds into Bloom Booths, which are shops they can run that sell specific wares, such as juice, books, or fabric. Once a booth is built, you supply it with items the owner needs to stock their goods. This in turn attracts visitors who come to your Oasis to shop, racking up money for you to purchase seeds to grow crops, materials for equipment synthesis, or additional Bloom Booths. It takes time to learn these tenets, mostly due to the game’s slow and incessant tutorials, but once you’re given the reins, the loop is quickly rewarding.

It's satisfying to build up your Oasis and see it steadily grow more vibrant and lush.
It’s satisfying to build up your Oasis and see it steadily grow more vibrant and lush.

The wider variety of Bloom Booths your Oasis contains, the more people that come to visit; and the more people that live in your Oasis, the higher its level, thus increasing its size and real-estate space. Your thoughts are always locked on what you can do to maximize your profits and upgrade your Oasis, or how you can entice a specific traveler into visiting. There’s great joy in sorting through and accomplishing the various odd jobs you’re given, but what’s most fulfilling is seeing your Oasis take on new life as it levels up, sprouting lush greenery, paving wider roads, and erecting stone monuments.

While you spend much of your time developing your Oasis, there are occasions when you must venture into the game’s overworld–often to seek out residents or explore nearby caves for materials. Most of the game’s locales are wide-open desert landscapes, which sounds dull aesthetically but is actually pleasing to the eye thanks to the way the game’s day/night cycle changes the world’s color palette. The environments are not as dense as they could be, sometimes coming across as small sandboxes more so than lived-in spaces, but they sport a sense of interconnectedness that remains satisfying to explore.

The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat.
The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat.

In your trek across the game’s arid deserts, you often fight creatures tainted by Chaos’ presence. Like much of Ever Oasis, combat is rudimentary and tedious at first, boiling down to dodging an attack at the right moment and counterattacking accordingly. But as you obtain more advanced maneuvers and abilities, fights start to become more exciting affairs, especially when you form a party of three of your Oasis’ most formidable residents to accompany you. The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat, as utilizing the unique strengths of various characters becomes paramount to your success in the late game’s more difficult fights. While combat can be fulfilling, inconsistent party AI frequently leads to moments of frustration. It’s common to see your companions running headfirst into a brutal attack, and other times skillfully dodging out of harm’s way. The issue is minor, but you’re liable to adopt the habit of bringing extra healing items to accommodate your allies’ sporadic incompetence.

A major highlight of the overworld is its dungeons. Each contains a varied mix of puzzles to solve and enemies to fight. The myriad puzzles you encounter are elaborate, requiring you to utilize the unique abilities of your party. Some characters can, for example, shapeshift. This particular ability comes in handy when you need one ally to become a ball and another to form a wall for the first character to ricochet off of. While none of the ordeals you face are particularly difficult, they’re diverse enough to keep you consistently engaged. However, an issue that detracts from the pacing of dungeons is the constant need to return to your Oasis to change your party members to overcome specific puzzles. Fast-travel alleviates this annoyance to some degree, but the number of times you’re forced to go back and forth breaks up the flow of dungeons, reducing the enjoyment of exploring and overcoming these trials.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

While Ever Oasis is rough in spots, it helps that the game maintains a consistent level of wonder, introducing new types of challenges in step with your acquisition of new tools and abilities. Small quality-of-life adjustments, such as the ability to send out resource-gathering parties and bulk Bloom Booth restocking, are introduced to alleviate the demands of your routine as the game’s scope increases and you’re forced to spend more time exploring. It understands your struggles the moment you experience them, smartly streamlining your ability to accomplish tasks before they can become problematic. But building up your Oasis demands patience, and that can be the most challenging aspect of all. While it’s easy to initially write off the game based on its rudimentary narrative and overtly vibrant visuals, what becomes compelling as you play more is the sense of ownership you start to feel for your Oasis and the bonds you create with your allies.

Ever Oasis’ tight blend of mechanics and activities are bound to keep you coming back for more well after completing it, if only to see what else you can do to develop your desert sanctuary. While the game’s story isn’t particularly moving, the consistent gratification of its incisive design makes it a satisfying adventure. Ever Oasis takes time to grow, but the return is well worth the wait.

Doctor Who Season Finale Review

Spoilers follow for this episode of Doctor Who.

To regenerate or not to regenerate. That is the question.

In fact, it’s the question not just for the Twelfth Doctor here in the Season 10 finale, The Doctor Falls, but also in a way for Missy and for Bill as well. It makes sense that Peter Capaldi and writer/executive-producer Steven Moffat’s final regular season episode would be concerned with such matters, not just because they’re about to regenerate behind the scenes but also because the very idea of regeneration on Doctor Who has become such a point of hype for viewers whenever it rolls around.

Unfortunately, while The Doctor Falls does play with this concept, it doesn’t do so in a terribly successful way in at least two of the three cases cited above. Twelve, who for some reason is steadfastly against regenerating, doesn’t even get closure on his story here, which is unfortunate. Yes, it was super cool to see David Bradley (Game of Thrones) return as the William Hartnell First Doctor at the very end of the episode, and I can’t wait to get to the Christmas Special to see how this all plays out, but dramatically it doesn’t work in the context of this episode. Not only does Twelve’s refusal to regenerate seem to come out of the blue, but teasing it for two episodes and then not resolving that story in any meaningful way is a bit of a cheat. I can’t keep on being somebody else, Twelve laments to the TARDIS. It’s a great concept, and one that deserves to be fleshed out. Sure, the parallel between Bill’s dilemma and how it informs the Doctor’s is sketched out earlier in the episode when she says, I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore. But otherwise Twelve’s regeneration regret is more or less dumped on us in the final moments of the season.

Continue reading

Cities: Skylines – Mass Transit Review

Public transportation has never been my favorite part of city-building simulations. I’ve always treated it as something of a necessary evil–a hassle best dealt with by quickly laying down extra roads, bus lines, or whatever other available gimmick so that I could keep constructing the new subdivisions and industries necessary to keep my citizens healthy and happy.

Mass Transit–the latest addition to the growing Cities: Skylines family from developer Colossal Order–doesn’t quite change my mind on all of this, as I’m also a real-world mayor who focuses on the big picture. However, it comes awfully close thanks to an effective collection of people-moving options, ranging from ferries to monorails to blimps. What’s included here smooths out some kinks in the original game’s transit systems, allowing you to build more efficiently running cities–albeit at the cost of some added micromanagement that moves the game well out of the virtual mayor’s office.

Mass Transit is centered on two areas, largely addressed in the three new scenarios and three new maps that present fresh challenges when it comes to efficiently moving your citizens from Point A to Point B. The most obvious facet of the expansion is what it adds to city character. You’re free to embrace the quirks of each city’s particular geography. You can practice something of a “sea and sky” philosophy for coastal and mountainous locales, for instance, using monorails and ferries to link neighborhoods and give your cities something of a Vancouver or Seattle vibe.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Since Skylines is pretty familiar to its fanbase at this point, being able to mix things up like this and put a fresh face on everything adds more to gameplay than you might imagine. The new Ferry Empire scenario offers a fairly light challenge when it comes to moving folks around your watery city, but it’s set it on a unique, beautiful landscape. Authentically, you have to work within the constraints of this terrain and embrace a municipal vision that’s far from the relative cookie-cutter metropolises seen elsewhere in Skylines.

The other focus is city efficiency. Mass Transit provides tools that make for better-running cities. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of the new hub buildings. These structures form central locations for public transportation. They allow you to concentrate your efforts and properly plan out transit systems–a big improvement from the more seat-of-the-pants concept of the original game, where you’re pressured to jury-rig and make it up on the fly. Here, hubs afford more opportunities to sketch out transit and approach development from a top-down perspective. You have more control as a result and become able to address transit as part of core city infrastructure, just like with electrical lines, water pipes, and sewers in the past.

One problem is the size of new additions, though. Retrofitting cities with hubs and other transit buildings can be a major chore, since they’re generally pretty big. The “Fix the Traffic” scenario sums up how challenging this can be, as you can’t seem to help leveling about half the city to get the snarled traffic situation smoothed out. Even laying down facilities that are a little easier to work with–train tracks, for instance–is both tough to design and to fit in without doing even more demolishing.

Structuring transit routes can be finicky, too. Simply establishing ferry pathways and routes can be frustrating and requires more trial-and-error than should be necessary for something seemingly so straightforward. So, it’s best to start with a clean slate with this expansion, something also advisable to best enjoy the suite of new game options (new road guidelines, for example) released as a free Skylines update alongside this expansion.

All of this combines to make Mass Transit more about micromanagement. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a control freak who wants to take a hands-on approach to everything in your city. But it does move Skylines further away from a simulation of what it’s like to be the real mayor of a real city. With all of the extras added in the various expansion packs, the game now feels a little more like a municipal engineer or municipal planner simulation than anything that properly depicts what it’s like to be the mayor overseeing everything.

Even with that caveat, Mass Transit adds more character and depth to what’s already the premier city-building simulation. It may be a bit disappointing that some of the original game’s big-picture philosophy and mayoral authenticity has been sacrificed in the process, but it can be argued that these changes have also done an impressive job of filling out the public-transportation element of city design.

Get Even Review

What if you could re-live your memories and the memories of others to see the world through their eyes? How would that make you feel about your own life decisions? Get Even, from Polish indie studio The Farm 51, tackles those questions and more. Get Even’s best element is no doubt its story. With plenty of twists and misdirection, this psychological thriller contains an emphatic and thought-provoking ending. But its gameplay, which consists of puzzle-solving and shooting, does nothing of note other than distract you along the way.

Get Even starts in dramatic, bewildering fashion. Playing as Cole Black, a former soldier with a long criminal record and cloudy motivations, you start in what looks like a creepy psychiatric hospital. You’re armed only with a silenced pistol and a smartphone. You are told nothing about why you’re there or where you are, but you quickly discover that your objective is to save a young girl with a bomb strapped to her chest. After taking down the men who captured her, you try to defuse the bomb, but it goes off. Casualties are presumed. Fade to black. You then wake up with a virtual reality device strapped to your head.

Black cannot make sense of what’s happened to him or why. (You might also note that he sounds just like Sean Bean, but he isn’t). The story gets even more distressing from there, as you try to piece together what happened as a mysterious scientist, Red, guides you through the asylum over monitors and speakers as part of your treatment.” You eventually discover that the asylum is not all it seems, and Red’s motivations only become more murky.

The first half of Get Even is spent under the guidance of Red, who is later revealed to be a character named Ramsey. You revisit Black’s memories, piecing together clues and attempting to unravel the story behind the mysterious victim. You find evidence as you explore these virtual memories, which ultimately ends up on a board scattershot with photos and newspaper clippings. You may not discover everything there is to see during your first recollection of each memory, but you’re free to return at any time to find what you might have overlooked and add a new piece to the puzzle.

Your vehicle to the virtual world–the Pandora headset–is Red’s life work. It allows you to be a fly on the wall in Black’s memories, where you can look but you can’t touch. Finding the answers you seek is complicated by memories that are maliciously corrupted. Apparently someone or something is trying to conceal the truth to make it difficult to understand what is real and what merely appears to be.

For a while, trust in your own judgement feels out of reach. It’s an intriguing way to tell a story, though it can be a lot to wrap your head around as the new and complex possibilities are introduced. But it all comes together in the end for you (and Black) in a very satisfying and unexpected way.

The action in the early stages of the game revolves around puzzle-solving and a limited amount of shooting, mostly with a weapon called a CornerGun. Black steals this item from a business rival of Ramsey’s, and like its name suggests, its barrel can turn 90 degrees, allowing you to shoot around corners. This is one of the more unique aspects of Get Even’s shooting. It takes some getting used to, as firing around corners can be disorienting at first. It ‘s a logistical challenge to learn where you need to stand or crouch to effectively fire around a corner, and it is very satisfying when you get the hang of it. Once you do, you can sneakily creep around, taking down enemies in secret.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

When shooting the CornerGun, you must land a headshot and make sure other enemies aren’t closeby or else they will be alerted to your presence and come after you in an organized way. It’s a bit unforgiving, especially on the Traumatizing difficulty (of note: Traumatizing and Gentle are the only two difficulty levels.) But it’s a good challenge and very satisfying when you get it right. Enemies inside Pandora vaporize when you kill them, and the action pauses for a moment as they disintegrate into shards. This is a cool-looking effect the first time, but it eventually wears out its welcome as the ensuing pause slows down the action with frustrating frequency.

Another item at Black’s disposal is his smartphone. It does basic things like display text messages and play voice calls, but is also equipped with a scanner that you can use on key items to learn more about them, while a heat vision camera alerts you to nearby enemies. A Vision tab on the smartphone illuminates certain key elements based on the context of a particular scene. All of this is critical info when problem solving.

Though it’s an unremarkable looking game, Get Even is backed by a wonderful soundtrack from Olivier Deriviere that heightens tension and accentuates action with pulsing, pounding electronic sounds and string instruments.

Get Even’s puzzles are rarely challenging or unique, and some can be frustrating when you have to look at the environment through your cell phone; bumping into objects while staring at the phone’s screen is a common annoyance. But there are a few puzzles that provide new and interesting challenges. One of the more memorable instances comes in the second half of the game, where you essentially play out a game of Clue. Using evidence like newspaper cutouts and police reports scattered in a room, you must correctly name a murder weapon, a perpetrator, and the bullet’s entry wound on the victim. It’s not the most difficult task, but it’s exciting to play the role of an investigator and it feels satisfying when you finally solve the mystery.

Eventually, you assume control of Ramsey, and this is where the story and gameplay get even more interesting. Ramsey performs an “audit” of Black’s memories to try to learn more about the events leading up the the girl in the warehouse. He wants to…get even with the people responsible.

When you’re playing as Ramsey, you have even more abilities than Black, one of which is a scanner that shows you where all nearby enemies are. Ramsey isn’t armed by default, but he can “assimilate” into the enemies, taking over their bodies and picking up their weapons in the process. You can sprint, but you can move even faster by warping, and when performed in rapid succession, warps allow you to get the jump on enemies in superhuman fashion.

As you play through these memories, you will feel a sense of deja vu, as you’re revisiting some of the places you played through as Black, but the story is experience in a new, unique perspective way. It is sort of like The Lion King 1.5, where you see the events of The Lion King from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. You tap into “engrams” scattered throughout the memories to see who Black spoke with, what they talked about, and how it contributes to the girl with the bomb. The mystery of the story is key to the intrigue of Get Even, and unraveling it yourself is the best part.

Though it’s an unremarkable looking game, Get Even is backed by a wonderful soundtrack from Olivier Deriviere that heightens tension and accentuates action with pulsing, pounding electronic sounds and string instruments. If you are in a memory that begins to break down, strange things can happen. In one situation, I was shooting my way through enemies and a pop song played over the action because I was going in guns-blazing instead of the quiet and controlled manner that Ramsey advised, leading to the memory breaking down and glitching. The performances of the voice actors is also notable, as lines are delivered with believable conviction and emotion, especially in the case of Ramsey.

Get Even tells a devastating story that ends with a striking M. Night Shyamalan-like twist. Interestingly, it’s the most crucial part of the entire story, and you see none of it. The visuals are left entirely to the imagination, which is unexpected and impactful. It is these kinds of powerful moments that emphasize Get Even’s key strength–delivering a twisting narrative that is fascinating enough to make up for its lackluster gameplay elements.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew Review

For better and worse, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is exactly what’s advertised–it’s a virtual-reality simulation of operating a Federation starship. For the first few moments, the sheer thrill of taking the Captain’s chair in VR, looking around you to see crew members all working away at their stations, and issuing your first commands is all wonderful and novel. But the second you start yearning for new life, new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before, you find a game nowhere near that ambitious.

Set in the J.J. Abrams Trek universe, Bridge Crew’s single-player campaign centers around the U.S.S. Aegis–which, after a brief training mission, sets forth on its task to help the Vulcans find a new home. This mission takes the Aegis into a Klingon-controlled territory, the Trench, and into the heart of a potentially ugly interstellar incident. You can fill one of four roles aboard the ship: the Captain issues orders to every other department from the holographic menu built into the player’s chair, the Helm puts you in the driver’s seat, Tactical handles shields and weaponry, and Engineering determines how much power gets shifted to the ship’s vital systems.

The single-player campaign is brief, but it acts as an extended tutorial on the ins and outs of running a starship. From the Captain’s chair, you receive orders from Starfleet and issue the commands that lead the Aegis ever forward. However, particularly in single-player, those commands aren’t as simple as just telling your crew to move forward at quarter impulse or fire phasers. Instead, they’re a piece-by-piece process that must be followed and timed just right, with every crew member involved performing their duties with precision. In single-player, even something as simple as warping involves opening a menu, setting the correct course, telling engineering to power up the warp drive, having the helm align the ship towards the target location, and finally issuing the order to perform the warp. The process becomes second nature over time, especially with a proper VR controller like the Playstation Move to navigate the menu-heavy UI.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

You also have the ability to temporarily switch to another position to take manual control over the ship’s various functions and levers in single-player, but it’s a lot to manage and not nearly the simple power trip you might expect. A.I.-controlled crew members have a nasty habit of being complete knuckleheads who don’t know how to properly and strategically fly around obstacles when pursuing a target.

Bridge Crew is somewhat more immersive in multiplayer, where you can speak directly to your crew and coordinate actions by voice, but you need to meet certain requirements for it to go smoothly: four trustworthy crew members, all of whom know their roles inside and out, and who can pull it together long enough to take the game even marginally seriously enough to get through the trickier missions. The situation is helped by the fact that, thankfully, the game supports Cross-Play between PSVR, Rift, and Vive users, meaning there’s typically no shortage of players to fill all four roles. However, since voice chat goes through all sorts of different protocols via the uPlay service, consistent communication remains a problem. Even then, that’s assuming you’re not stuck with someone who won’t stop quoting Galaxy Quest instead of remembering to keep your ship in low-detection mode in Klingon territory.

It didn’t happen often in my time with Bridge Crew, but sometimes the stars did, in fact, align with the right kind of crew: cheerful without being overly silly, strong in their roles, intuitive enough to question an order without the bridge descending into chaos, and being just plain fun, amiable companions. And once that miracle is accomplished, you’re left to contend with Bridge Crew as a game. And that game is, ultimately, a fairly milquetoast space shooter.

No Caption Provided

The big issue really comes down to the fact that experiencing the minutiae of running a Starfleet ship is such a thin, pedantic aspect of what makes Star Trek a fascinating universe to play around in. It’s always been strong character work and far-reaching sci-fi ideas and allegory that have elevated the dry space-navy material. There isn’t nearly enough of the former here. The single-player campaign has a story, one that’s even a decent jumping-off point from the Abrams films (albeit one that’s deeply reminiscent of Mass Effect: Andromeda), but you aren’t making the truly hard decisions that define the best Starfleet captains, nor are you able to interact with your crew or even the ship outside of the bridge room in any meaningful way.

Even Trek’s infamous no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario–playable here as part of the game’s introductory chapter–ends up as little more than a mindless shootout while attempting to transport the doomed vessel’s crew. The remainder of the campaign never really rises above that, content to be a game of traveling between systems, scanning areas and artifacts, transporting life forms, and fending off Klingon Birds of Prey from time to time. It’s a game that crucially needs more interesting challenges that can’t be solved with phasers.

It’s still somewhat thrilling to inhabit the captain’s chair on the bridge of a starship–at the bare minimum, Star Trek: Bridge Crew accomplishes that mission. When the game is at its best, the spirit of cooperation between various asymmetrical elements is encouraging–even special. In every other regard, however, Bridge Crew is forgettable the second you pull out of VR.

Nex Machina Review

Nex Machina is a modern revamp of Robotron 2084 in all but name, and developer Housemarque even managed to collaborate with Robotron’s creator, Eugene Jarvis, to bring the high-quality homage to life. Conceptually, the two games are nearly identical, and every aspect of Nex Machina is appropriately chock-full of nostalgia; the gorgeously trippy graphics feel simultaneously modern and retro, and the synth-wave soundtrack complements the sci-fi action perfectly. In the same vein as Pac-Man Championship Edition, Nex Machina is one of the best modernizations of a classic arcade game that you can find.

The plot is brief and to the point: you’re a lone hero trying to save what remains of humanity during a robot apocalypse. The twin-stick shooting action that defines your fight is tight and responsive, and every world is relentlessly challenging. Individual levels are relatively small, fast-paced, and frequently packed with secrets to discover amidst the chaotic hero-on-robot action. And death comes instantly, whether you get hit by a lone bullet or simply bump into a nearby enemy.

Nex Machina’s pronounced difficulty is by design, hearkening back to the challenge of its arcade source material. Beyond advancing through stages, skillful play is rewarded with item upgrades, bonus points, and a strong sense of satisfaction from overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Nex Machina is consistently challenging, but it’s also thoroughly gratifying as every power-up gives you newfound confidence in the heat of battle.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Your primary objective in each level is to destroy a number of enemy waves before rocketing off to the next set piece. There are, however, numerous secondary objectives to consider along the way. As with Robotron, there are a handful of humans haplessly wandering around each stage. Rescuing them (just by touching them) requires precise timing as you must not only protect your own hide, but also defeat enemies who’re whittling away the wandering humans’ health. Saving humans is considered optional, but it’s a relentlessly tempting (and risky) distraction that you’ll chase time and time again, even when you should know better.

Boss battles at the end of every level are the biggest test, throwing out dense curtains of bullets that demand exacting movements to avoid. All are challenging, and each is drastically different–from a mechanical ape that sits at the top of the screen and throws flaming debris at you, to a giant Terminator-like Skull and a hivemind boss that attacks from the safety of a protective field. Adding to the challenge, boss fights follow a series of dense enemy waves; if you lose all of your lives and end up using a continue, you have to start the process all over again.

Nex Machina is difficult, intensely satisfying, and packed with enough secrets and lofty secondary objectives to keep you enraptured for hours.

You can point to dense waves of enemies and monstrous bosses as the reasons Nex Machina is so hard, but more than their numbers or size, it’s the range of tactics they employ that ultimately stress you out. Some enemies mindlessly plow toward you, others will make beelines to humans, and there are burrowing turrets that send out waves of exploding balls, among a variety of other robotic dangers. You typically face myriad enemy types at once, from all directions, creating a juggling act that would be impossible to contend with if not for your special abilities.

Dashing is central to surviving in Nex Machina’s harsh world, as it was in Housemarque’s previous games, Resogun and Super Stardust. Once activated, you’re invulnerable for the duration of the lunge, and your timing has to be perfect given the small margin for error in most levels. Misjudge the duration of your dash through a crowd by a nanosecond, and you’ll lose a life. Since there is a brief recharge period between dashes, you can’t abuse it. This is alleviated somewhat if you spot and grab a triple-dash power-up, but these are few and far between and don’t completely diminish the risk of an untimely sprint in the wrong direction.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Secondary weapons, however, are more prevalent and can make or break you depending on the scenario. Your options include powerful lasers, rockets, floating bombs, and a sword for deadly close-up attacks. These also require a brief pause to recharge, reinforcing the idea that your ability to manage cooldown meters is a critical skill–and another layer to track during frantic onslaughts.

You can, in theory, play through Nex Machina in under an hour, but it’s eminently replayable thanks to the number of secrets waiting to be found, and the skills you need to hone in order to survive and climb to the top of the leaderboards. You do have the option of bringing a friend along, but Nex Machina’s multiplayer is woefully limited to local engagements. The lack of online play is a notable disappointment given how useful a partner can be on the game’s harder difficulties.

Limited multiplayer options aside, Nex Machina is a game that confidently meets expectations. It’s difficult, intensely satisfying, and packed with enough secrets and lofty secondary objectives to keep you enraptured for hours. It’s a classic game at heart, but with refined challenges and exacting mechanics, it feels right at home in the modern era.

The 100: Season 4 Review

Note: this is a mostly spoiler-free review of The 100: Season 4, which is currently available on Netflix in the US (and will hit DVD and Blu-ray on July 18th). I’ll discuss basic character and plot details, and provide a proper spoiler warning for some brief, most specific discussion at the end of the review.

The 100’s third season was a rocky one, to say the least. I don’t think it was nearly as disastrous overall as some — as terribly handled and impossible to overlook as the circumstances of Lexa’s death were — but there were multiple examples of clumsy storytelling, even as the show still had a lot of powerful and effective elements at work as well.

Still, the perception for many was that Season 4 needed to get the show back on track. And on that score, it did very well, delivering a year that had some trouble spots along the way, but was built on a strong spine, grew to a crescendo as it continued, and was capped off by some of the best material yet for The 100.

Continue reading

My Hero Academia Episode 24 Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

“Shoto Todoroki: Origin” is a tough act to follow, and while “Fight on, Iida” doesn’t capture the same emotional highs of the preceding episode, it manages to weave in a substantial amount of content without feeling rushed or overstuffed. The U.A. Sports Festival is quickly coming to a close, and “Fight on, Iida” does a solid job at setting the stage for the final battle, while also offering new insight into Iida’s family and the evil threat that looms outside the school’s walls.

Continue reading

Impact Winter Review

Trudging through a desolate, snow-covered landscape for ten minutes, scavenging a couple of gas cans, and hiking another ten minutes back to the fire you need to fuel sounds like a chore. This series of actions is what characterizes the experience of Impact Winter, a slow-paced survival game. But monotonous as it may seem, you’ll be driven to keep performing these actions because of the tense scenario that contextualizes them. Instead of challenging you to persist indefinitely, Impact Winter asks you to endure for a set amount of time with the looming promise of rescue–an end to your struggles–and pushes you to stretch your already thin resources just that little bit further.

You play as Jacob, who leads a group of four other calamity survivors. They’re holed up in a church when a little robot called Ako-light springs to life, broadcasting a mysterious transmission that states a rescue operation is occurring in 30 days. Jacob’s task is to leave the safety of the church with Ako-light at his side and traverse the post-apocalyptic tundra, scavenging for supplies in order to keep the group alive until that time.

Sometimes, this is all you'll see for a while.
Sometimes, this is all you’ll see for a while.

Each survivor, including Jacob, has a number of meters that must be maintained at a safe level in order to avoid their deaths or departures from the group. These include overall health, energy, hunger, thirst, temperature, and morale. Keeping the church bonfire fueled and making sure each survivor is fed and happy are as important as exploring the world and completing quest lines, which fast-track the looming rescue operation by taking chunks off the timer. The constant juggling of all these priorities keeps you anxiously engaged, your thoughts constantly being occupied with short-term planning as you trek through the snow.

Each individual back at camp has a different crafting specialty that Jacob can take advantage of to help ease the burden of his tasks. For example, Wendy can effortlessly cook a number of filling meals given the right ingredients, while Maggie is exceptionally handy at mechanical repairs and upgrades. These characters also provide a series of personal quests, the completion of which help decrease the rescue timer and expand that character’s range of crafting recipes. These quests are narratively thin, but they are the primary motivators for you to explore the world and push the boundaries of how far you are willing to risk traveling from relative safety. And it’s the exploration of this bleak, snowy wasteland of a world which is Impact Winter’s strength.

The overworld feels desolate, but once in awhile, you’ll encounter a hint of what once was. A half-buried gas station or the scene of a disastrous airline crash help create a gloomy world, in addition to being useful landmarks for navigation. You’ll encounter the roofs of what were once tall buildings that lead to dank underground caverns of former shopping malls and airports. These dungeon-like areas are convincingly devastated, with a mess of receptacles to scavenge from. The ominous soundtrack that accompanies your long journeys hit the correct notes to instantly evoke the tension of classic thriller films like The Thing. It’s an ominously intriguing world to explore, provided you’re adequately prepared to survive the journey out there and back.

Impact Winter runs on a constantly ticking clock, and traversing the icy overworld, referred to as “The Void,” takes up an enormous amount of that time. With no means of fast-travel, each journey you take topside requires some forethought and planning to avoid completely wasting the day while your group’s well-being declines. Limited time and resources mean that it’s also difficult to follow all character quests to completion, so the best course of action needs to be decided on well in advance.

Are you going far enough to warrant bringing a portable campsite to restore your energy for the journey home? What kinds of tools do you need to accomplish the goal at your destination? Should you bring food and drink for yourself, or do you think you’ll be able to procure some on location? Have you left enough room in your backpack to bring supplies back? Traverse frivolously, and you could find yourself in a situation where you’re desperately trying to satiate Jacob’s hunger to avoid health loss. Or perhaps using Ako-light’s flashlight and scanner functions too often has caused it to temporarily run out of battery power, leaving you with no radar, meaning you have have to navigate home with just your memory of landmarks and a paper map from before the world was buried in meters of snow. The game constantly holds you in a state of mild anxiety, worrying and hoping that the path you’ve chosen will pay off.

Underground caverns can be impressively derelict.
Underground caverns can be impressively derelict.

Deciding what to pick up while scavenging is also a constant dilemma. Impact Winter adopts a grid-based inventory system where each item takes up a different amount of physical space, meaning there’s a constant value assessment between, for example, grabbing a number of small food items versus a giant can of gasoline. With the sheer amount of items available in the world, it’s hard to tell what’s going to be useful or not in the beginning. With limited inventory space and unlimited pressure to provide for the group, it’s foolish to pick up every shiny thing you find and constantly make long hikes back to base to drop everything off. Scavenging requires you to always have clear goals in mind.

However, despite Impact Winter’s tonal strength and the genuine uneasiness its gameplay nurtures, the struggle to survive this harsh world is made even more difficult by a significant number of technical issues that quickly snowball, coating the already taxing experience in a layer of frustration that makes it hard to stick with for long periods of time.

There's always plenty to worry about, even as you sleep.
There’s always plenty to worry about, even as you sleep.

Areas for contextual actions are ill-defined, meaning that precious time is often spent trying to move Jacob into the right place to perform actions like searching a specific container or climbing a ladder. Collision detection is spotty, so you’ll struggle to get up a flight of stairs but also find yourself clipping through tables. Jacob will often refuse to respond to movement inputs until you pause and unpause the game.

Technical problems can also prove deadly. The game’s passage of time, which continues while you’re fiddling around in menus, is an interesting and thematically relevant feature, but it means wolves will continue to attack if you’re unfortunate enough to get a series of large, in-game notifications while trying to escape them. You’ll also likely experience dire situations where you’re cornered by hostile animals and ready to fight, only to discover that the weapon lock-on system has ceased to function properly.

We experienced what felt like consistent input delay when using a controller. At the time of writing, the developers only recently released a patch that implements previously nonexistent mouse and keyboard controls, though there are notable usability annoyances such as being unable to click a scrollbar to go through your supplies, and some bothersome key placements with no option for custom mappings. Some impossible side-quest lines also had us scratching our heads, like being asked to specifically deliver ten 45 RPM vinyl records to an NPC, and discovering that we were not physically able to bring ten of these objects to the quest-giver, even with our inventory space maxed-out.

 The post-apocalyptic tundra buries former skyscrapers.
The post-apocalyptic tundra buries former skyscrapers.

There were also problems that veered close to game-breaking. In our time with Impact Winter, returning to The Void from an interior area meant we had to sit through long loading times–sometimes wondering if our game had crashed. These loading times were shortened dramatically in a patch, but we then encountered instances of freezing and large swaths of texture pop-ins when spawning into the world instead. Most of these issues are minor on their own, but together they quickly become intensely irritating. To their credit, the developers have been transparent with their plans for upcoming patches, and mapped out their priorities to address a number of these issues in the short- and long-term future.

Impact Winter deftly captures the tension of being put in a survival situation and makes every compromise you need to make a tough and near-irreversible decision. Surviving in The Void is a mentally taxing experience, and once you begin to internalize the world and the well-being of your group, juggling the countless priorities can be engrossing. Unfortunately, the numerous technical issues make this experience more arduous than necessary, and mar what is otherwise an impactful survival experience.