Mudbound Review

The title of Mudbound isn’t just a metaphor, but it’s a great one. Dee Rees’s lyrical new American tragedy gets down in the dirt to tell the story of two farming families whose lives are intertwined, whether they like it or not. It opens with two men digging a grave as it fills with torrential rainwater, a scene which evolves into a perfect encapsulation of almost everything Dee Rees’s characters go through over the course of their difficult tale, even though the reasons why won’t be apparent until the very end.

Mudbound tells the story of the McAllans and the Jacksons. The McAllans are a white family, used to fine things, now living off the land and not terribly happy about it. The Jacksons are tenant farmers who work the McAllans’ land, but as a black family in the 1940s, they are still beholden to the whims of their white landlords. Requests are orders in disguise, and orders are not to be refused.

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LA Noire Switch Review

When it first released in 2011, L.A. Noire was an anomaly; its facial capture tech was an innovative showcase of animation, and it’s focus on slower-paced interrogation puzzles widely contrasted the big-budget shooters of the time. Six years later, the game has surprisingly managed to make its way onto Switch. While a few sacrifices were made in performance and graphical fidelity to get L.A. Noire running, the ambitious spirit of this stylistic 1940s-era detective adventure remains.

L.A. Noire’s principal 21 cases are all present, including all of its DLC cases. As budding LAPD detective Cole Phelps, you spend the bulk of your time gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, and making accusations. Phelps is a fascinating, yet morally flawed, character whose checkered past is compelling to see unfold as the story goes on. The cases you solve remain interesting and well-paced, balancing slower, more meticulous investigative moments with brief shootouts and vehicular/on-foot chases. On Switch, the game controls as well as it did on previous generation consoles, especially when playing docked with a Pro Controller. It also offers motion and touch controls, which are welcome additions that make L.A. Noire feel more involved. Motion controls allow you to use the right Joy-Con to control the camera and physically manipulate objects you pick up, while touch controls command Phelps where to go and what investigate by simply tapping the screen. However, both control schemes don’t feel as functional as playing with a traditional gamepad setup.

Interrogations often lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments.
Interrogations often lead to many of the game’s most tense and captivating moments.
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While L.A. Noire’s story and varied pacing are some of its most exceptional aspects, where it truly shines is in its interrogation sequences. Armed with your intellect and the wealth of evidence you collect during your investigations, questioning suspects and seeing through their facial ticks to expose their secrets lead to many of the game’s most tense and captivating moments. The facial animations hold up well, displaying a level of realism that’s still impressive. And with top-notch performances from its facial capture actors, interrogations are just as absorbing and believable.

In a subtle change from the original, interrogation options have been changed from “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie” to “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse.” The new naming scheme helps to give you a better understanding of Cole’s behavior towards a suspect’s testimony, which was difficult to gauge in the original. The renewed context is particularly useful when a suspect is playing coy, where it makes sense that using the more forceful “Bad Cop” approach would root out more information. However, the new terminology isn’t perfect. There are situations where it isn’t specific enough; this is apparent when responding with “Good Cop”, where the option seems to lean more towards believing the suspect rather than following proper police protocol. Despite this occasional issue, interrogations are consistently rewarding, often requiring critical thinking and sharp judgment to complete perfectly.

There still isn't much to do in the game's faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.
There still isn’t much to do in the game’s faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.

L.A. Noire’s finer qualities are maintained, but its notable shortcomings also persist. Movement is a bit clunky during shootouts, and there are plenty of useless filler objects to sift through during crime scene investigations. But the most glaring issue lies in the game’s recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles, which is authentic but doesn’t offer much to do outside of main missions and random street crime activities. New hidden collectables in the form of books and records have been added to the Switch version to encourage exploration, but it’s not made clear that these items exist nor does the game encourage you to seek them out.

These issues don’t do much to detract from the experience at large, especially considering how well the game runs. Visuals have taken a slight downgrade compared the original version, sporting new jagged edges, fluctuating textures, and noticeably weaker draw distances and dynamic lighting effects. However, these issues are less apparent when playing the game undocked, where it runs and looks the best.

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Even considering L.A. Noire’s age, it’s a wonder that the game can be played on Switch.

On the other hand, frame rate maintains a steady 30 frames per second, only drastically dipping when surrounded by multiple NPCs or vehicles while on foot. Though, it’s not a deal breaker, seeing as the game consistently performs well during the moments where it matters, like during investigations, interrogations, and car chases.

Even considering L.A. Noire’s age, it’s a wonder that the game can be played on Switch. While nowhere near as technically striking as seeing Doom run on the console, there’s still something special about playing what was once such an ambitious game on last-generation consoles in the palm of your hand. And the game lends itself well to the platform; the bite-sized length of missions makes it a great fit for playing on the go.

If sharp visuals and higher frame rate are huge factors in your enjoyment, then you’re better off playing L.A. Noire on PS4 and Xbox One, which sport added bells and whistles that elevate the game’s performance. But if you’re charmed by the idea of experiencing it portably, then L.A. Noire on Switch comes recommended. It may not work the best under pressure, but it’s well worth replaying or experiencing for the first time on Nintendo’s convertible console.

Murder on the Orient Express Review

The whole idea of remaking a murder mystery, especially one of the most popular murder mysteries ever made, is inherently fraught with peril. After all, a lot of people in the audience already know “whodunnit”, either because they’ve read it, seen it, or heard about it through good old-fashioned cultural osmosis.

So it was exceptionally smart to get Kenneth Branagh to remake Murder on the Orient Express. The director of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet has built his whole reputation on re-staging classic tales that had already been re-staged thousands of times. He knows that the trick to making another Murder on the Orient Express isn’t to keep us guessing. Agatha Christie’s impeccable story does all of that heavy lifting for him. The trick is to film the hell out of an ensemble cast of incredible actors, each of them putting their own spin on a timeless classic, and to have a grand old time doing it.

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Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy Season Finale Review

It’s unfortunate that the capstone episode to Telltale’s overall great Guardians adaptation ended up being one of the most inconsistent. It feels like half of an epic finale in too big of a box, surrounded by those foam packing peanuts that you’re just going to throw away. The emotional high notes in Episode 5: Don’t Stop Believin’ ring loud and clear, but between them are valleys of underwhelming and sometimes confusing character writing.

It’s very difficult to talk about this episode without giving any kind of spoilers, though I’ll do my best to be cagey. My biggest criticism is how the inevitable “getting the band back together” was handled. At the end of Episode 4, the Guardians were on the skids, having all gone their separate ways due to seemingly irreconcilable differences. Episode 5 opens with two of the deserters walking immediately back into the room they had just left, deciding not to quit after all. They were gone for probably all of 30 seconds in the continuity of the series, making their departure feel largely meaningless.

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ViewSonic XG2700-4K Gaming Monitor Review

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4K monitors have gone through a bit of a slow burn in terms of wide acceptance. Sure, no one can deny the jaw-dropping beauty of an image presented in a resolution four-times larger than 1080p, but high prices and a dearth of media content had previously kept many from taking the 4K plunge.

Thankfully, prices have come down significantly in the last year and 4K gaming is very much a mainstream reality in the era of consoles like PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X and cheaper-than-ever PC GPUs. The ViewSonic XG2700-4K (See it on Amazon) is still going to take a hefty chunk from the old wallet at almost $600, but this gorgeous 3840 x 2160 screen is a solid, near future-proof investment-particularly if you’re using an AMD graphics card and can take advantage of its FreeSync compatibility.

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Daddy’s Home 2 Review

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are back and they brought the devil with them in Daddy’s Home 2, a simplistic and mean-spirited sequel to a simplistic and mean-spirited original.

The Daddy’s Home movies take place in a cruel universe where the basic concept of men having feelings is considered inherently ridiculous, and bullying men into behaving like bullies is considered family-friendly entertainment. In the first film, Brad, played by Will Ferrell, was the sensitive stepfather to children whose birth father, Dusty, played by Mark Wahlberg, was more conventionally macho. You could set an analogue watch to the plot of the first Daddy’s Home, which ended as it had to, with everybody learning a valuable lesson about why being a jerk is a bad thing… a lesson completely undermined by the rest of these films, which – again – are based on the fundamental premise that reveling in meanness is both funny and appropriate for kids.

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Spelunker Party Review

When you bring up “difficult games,” the first thing that comes to mind for many Japanese players isn’t Dark Souls, but the NES game Spelunker, thanks to the many ridiculous ways that the game’s hero can die very, very easily. This notoriety has given Spelunker a cult following big enough for developer Tozai Games and publisher Square-Enix to reimagine it on modern platforms–while implementing all the little idiosyncrasies that made Spelunker so infamous in the first place.

The game follows Spelunker, Spelunkette, and companions as they travel to the depths of the earth in search of a mysterious energy source that’s causing strange events across the globe. You and up to four friends, either on- or offline, go exploring in stages filled with hazards large and small (though size doesn’t really matter when everything kills you). These stages are divided up into several smaller sections, and everyone playing needs to reach the end of one section before they can move on to the next. Oftentimes, this involves collecting multiple colored keys to open doors blocking the way to the section gates. Other collectibles are scattered around the stages as well: Bombs and flares add to your ammo supply, gold lets you use various in-game features like excavating for items, and Litho-stones contain pieces of new gear that can boost the heroes’ stats and level up with use.

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One thing Spelunker Party does particularly well: It recreates the myriad absurd ways that Spelunker can die an ignoble death. If you’re used to platforming heroes who can survive a fall of more than a foot, it’s going to take quite some time to get used to Spelunker dying after attempting jumps that any other action game protagonist would easily survive (and that’s not even taking into the account the absurd one-hit deaths from things like self-inflicted explosions and bat poop, either). But that’s the way Spelunker was, and that’s how Spelunker party is: true to its source in a way that some players will find charming, and others will find aggravating.

Thankfully, Spelunker Party’s level design takes these weakness into account. Yes, the stages are challenging–owed mostly to the limitations of the old-school mechanics– but they rarely cross the border into downright unfair territory, instead rewarding you for cautious play. They also have a fair bit of variety to them, and introduce new gameplay mechanics over time–some of which turn out far better than others (I really don’t think Spelunker needed expanded water physics or boss fights). Stages also tend to go quite long, which can be a terrifying prospect as a solo Spelunker: If you run out of the five lives you’re given on each stage attempt, you lose everything that you collected since you started the stage, and you must start the level over from scratch. This can get very frustrating once you reach the even-more-difficult later and optional levels.

Thankfully, there’s a way to offset this difficulty significantly, and that’s by playing with others either on- or offline. The addition of more people to play with transforms Spelunker Party into a cooperative platforming experience that’s far more fun than the solo mode. Local multiplayer allows for you to play split-screen with up to three other people in the same room. Communication is a big thing here, as you can coordinate exploration duties, help guide folks through difficult areas, and–most importantly–have a mutual laugh at the dumb deaths you all take.

Online play is similar, though lack of voice communication in the Switch version of the game hinders it. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the multiplayer is that you’re not automatically toast when you run out of lives; one your lives counter hits zero, you respawn at your last checkpoint with 30 seconds on a timer. If another player comes back to save you, you’re back in commission – but if time runs out, you’re out of the stage for good. The back-and-forth revival mechanics make the stages a lot easier to tackle, lead to tense situations, and even present moral quandaries–is it worth trying to backtrack through a space littered with hazards in 30 seconds to save another player, or do you simply mourn for the fallen and make haste to the exit with your loot? Is it worth constantly reviving a weak link in the group? That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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But while Spelunker Party is far more fun with others, finding friends who can put up with the rigid, old-fashioned game mechanics and grind might prove challenging. Much of Spelunker Party’s free-to-play lineage is still evident: While microtransactions are absent, the game pushes you to replay levels in order to earn money, boost scores and experience points (both for your player, companion animals, and individual pieces of gear), and collect Litho-stones. Perhaps most frustratingly, collected Litho-stones don’t grant loot immediately–they only represent pieces of items that are assembled over the course of playing and replaying levels. Even the game’s quest system seems purposely designed to waste as much of your time as possible; they function like achievements (collect X number of items, defeat ghosts, and so on), but you must manually select each one, and you can only take on a single such quest at a time when, ideally, the game should be automatically tracking this stuff from the outset and rewarding you as you go.

Spelunker Party is a bit of a hard sell. If you can get a bunch of old-school-minded players together as a group and are prepared to laugh at yourself (and others) over a bunch of stupid deaths, it’s a pretty great time. As a solo experience, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even if you like the absurdly strict mechanics, the grindy nature of the game and the overly long stages simply don’t lend themselves well to solo play. Spelunker Party, much like the original game it’s based on, can be a hard game to love, but if you’re prepared to dig deep with some friends, it can be a gem.

Steven Universe: Save the Light Review

The Steven Universe cartoon is a conceptual gold mine, and an RPG may be the perfect kind of game to showcase its bubbly and feisty superhero personalities. Following its 2015 mobile RPG (Steven Universe: Attack The Light), developer Grumpyface successfully captures much of what makes the show special in Steven Universe: Save the Light. Though somewhat tragically, the otherwise lovable adventure is regularly disrupted by underlying technical issues.

For most of the game, it’s just Steven and up to three of his besties getting into some relatively standard RPG shenanigans. You explore the environment, pick up loot where you find it, run into wandering enemies, and take them on in active-time turn-based combat. Like its predecessor, Save the Light is an RPG from the Paper Mario school of game design. Combat emphasizes contextual button presses, where hitting your mark does extra damage, defends against attacks, or adds effects. This comes with the minor-but-nifty twist that characters don’t necessarily have to act when their turn comes around, but can instead bank Star Points for more expensive abilities in future turns. Strategy comes down to determining how best to dismantle an enemy, not necessarily whose turn it is.

The vibrant cardboard cutout art style manages to admirably convey the spirit of the show without being an exact copy. One area, the Strawberry Battlefield, is particularly stunning, with warm green natural beauty and plump fruit engulfing the still-discernible remains of deadly weaponry and wartime detritus. The game’s fixed camera angles give you a good look at the expansive environments; however, the camera often has trouble adjusting as your party moves around the map, and sometimes the camera doesn’t follow you at all.

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The character animations are also a source of joy, with every little action conveying a ton of personality. Peridot doing a fiddly Super Mario Bros. 2-esque Luigi jump is one of those little treats that constantly makes you smile. The music follows suit: While the number of tracks is limited, the tunes themselves are pretty well in line with the show’s 8-bit sounds, with gentle synth pop. Even here, the glitches rear their ugly head, with music from the overworld frequently continuing to play when you open the menu screen, leading to a dissonant overlap between tracks.

Traversing the environment presents the most debilitating problem of the game, which lies with the AI. All four of your party members are onscreen at once, and it’s all too easy for characters to get stuck behind objects, seemingly forgetting that they have the ability to jump and could use it to regain freedom. To make the situation worse, the game doesn’t auto-teleport lost characters to your location when a battle starts, so getting into an encounter with a glitched-out party means that the battle starts with only one character, or sometimes not at all (which can only be fixed by quitting and restarting the area). Latter portions of the game are extremely puzzle- and platforming-heavy, which exacerbates the problem.

Still, the game almost makes up for it by staying staunchly true to its source material, as far as the fine details go. Fry bits and donuts restore health; Together Breakfasts heal the entire party; you can use Bismuth’s forge to upgrade weapons; Onion sells goods in hidden areas of every stage, like the shady little criminal that he is.

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But where the show’s personality really shines through is in the character progression: While leveling up gives characters a number of upgrade points to pour into different stats, the most powerful attacks and abilities are predicated off of the characters looking out for each other. A few of the basic attacks utilize that philosophy by themselves; Steven can play his ukulele for his allies to boost their attacks, and Greg can do the same and heal them (it’s worth noting that these instruments add guitar/ukulele tracks to the background soundtrack). When the relationship meter between two characters is full, they can either perform a team-up attack… or if it’s two Gems, they can perform a special dance that allows them to meld together and become a Fusion (an ultimate version of each Gem from the show that can deal out major damage).

After a particularly tough battle, Steven will often stop the journey in its tracks to tell one of his traveling companions how great they are, which not only increases their relationship, but grants additional XP. Yes, every character can just hammer away at enemies and still do well–but true success in Save the Light is nothing without a little help from your friends. Save the Light plays like your typical RPG, but the notion that you’re off on an adventure with your best friends is tied to the game’s systems in an extraordinary way. If this was all Save the Light was, we’d be talking about a simple-but-enjoyable RPG, and a pitch-perfect way to hang around in Steven’s universe between seasons of the show. Unfortunately, it’s still brought down by the fact the game being broken in some major ways.

Dragon Ball Super Episode 114 Review

Warning: The following review contains spoilers for the episode.

The Saiyan battle continues this week as Caulifla and Kale continue to pressure Goku in the Tournament of Power. The battle between the 3 is quite the spectacle, but where Episode 114 excels is in it’s ability to make Caulifla and Kale convincing heroes that are worth rooting for even when fighting against Goku. For all its positives, a poor narrative choice does bring the ending down, even if it does mean interesting possibilities for the future.

Once again, Super does a great job with its fight sequences. The movements were fast and sharp, the ki blasts were unique and colorful, and, most of all, the action was easy to track. With so many bright colors and crazy attacks blasting off, it’s not uncommon for Dragon Ball to be overwhelming visually, but thanks to color-coded attacks for each character, Super made it simple to know who was doing what at all times.

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. Review

“Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done” is the sort of line that reads great on paper, and sounds even better coming from Denzel Washington, but demands a heck of a lot of scrutiny. And a heck of a lot of scrutiny it gets in Dan Gilroy’s anxious and captivating new legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq., one of the richest examinations of catastrophic ethical collapse you’re likely to see.

Denzel Washington stars as Roman J. Israel, Esq., who has spent decades of his life in a small room at a law firm, doing complex paperwork while his partner makes all the appearances in court and – as Roman J. Israel, Esq. learns too late, after his partner has a heart attack – all of the difficult decisions. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is suddenly thrust into the real world of criminal law, where principles are considered a luxury and practicality reigns supreme, and where there’s no place for an introvert who refuses to compromise his integrity.

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