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It’s quite the task to discuss The Last of Us Part II without spoiling anything. This review will attempt to dissect Ellie’s journey as vaguely as possible. I hope to explore the game’s narrative, themes, and characters in another article at another time.
I’m gonna be honest, I am a huge fan of the original The Last of Us. I had ridiculously high expectations for The Last of Us Part II when launch night arrived. I harbored strong feelings towards Ellie and Joel, but I didn’t believe their story required further exploration.
Does The Last of Us Part II need to exist? Well, after I finished the game and the credits rolled, I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. It took me a couple weeks to really solidify how I felt about the game. Let’s jump into my spoiler-free The Last of Us Part II review.
The level of violence in The Last of Us Part II is uncomfortable and often revolting. It’s shocking in the early stages of the game, and then, as the game continues to pour more on you, it begins to normalize. Several-dozen, dismembered zombies and humans later, I grew numb without realizing.
I started wrapping up the game’s narrative and decided this game was too much; that it went too far. Honestly, I wanted to give up on the game altogether. Even so, I powered through and then it was over. Was the violence showcased in this game worth it? No. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to make the player feel uncomfortable about what they’re doing. It fits the narrative Naughty Dog has created and pushes the theme of hatred forward. You’ll find out what that means once you’ve played a few hours or so.
The gameplay in The Last of Us Part II is immediately recognizable to players who played through the first game. This game takes what you know and adds more depth, reworking mechanics while leaving others alone. You can now “go prone,” which basically means you can crawl on your belly to further avoid detection. You can do almost everything while you’re prone, including using every weapon in your arsenal. It’s this console generation’s equivalent of realizing you can finally use your sword while riding Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s going to be difficult to go back to the original game without this feature in it.
Ellie can now also jump when you press a button. This mechanic is mainly for traversal, but it can also be used to dodge some attacks (not the best way, but it sort of works). If you really want to avoid damage, the newly-added dodge is the best way to do this. You can dodge almost anything during combat if you get the timing right. This is just as welcomed as going prone, making encounters much more fluid and satisfying. Dodging is required, especially on the higher difficulties where enemies are more intelligent and resilient.
As for weapons, there are several additions which I won’t go into. What I will say is that there are more upgrades to weapons and quite a few more character skills this time around. You can pick up training manuals that add more ability paths, each with their own set of related abilities, such as stealth and explosives paths. It’s likely that you won’t unlock them all on your first playthrough or even your second. This adds a whole other level of customization to your first playthrough.
Crafting is also back, with some welcomed additions, such as arrows. The amount of resources that are available will depend on the difficulty level you pick, which can be changed and customized at any time in game.
The best way to play The Last of Us Part II is on the two hardest difficulty levels. The game’s AI is programmed to throw more at you: they check around obstacles, look under vehicles, and flank you. There’s an added layer of suspense and danger, especially on Survivor. If you can handle it, I’d recommend playing on Survivor for the optimal experience.
You’ll be spending a large number of hours in combat, discovering new ways to maim and kill, but this game isn’t just about killing things and getting better at it.
Cutscenes are back, but they’re not always as obvious or jarring. They’re interwoven into the gameplay so seamlessly that there are times you don’t realize that control has been taken away. Part II is the closest that games have come to blending the medium with the film medium. Gameplay and cutscenes are still pretty distinct, but they coexist so much better than in the first game.
At first glance, The Last of Us Part II’s story isn’t that complex. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that it’s a revenge story at its core. If you look back at the first game, the story wasn’t that complicated either. The Last of Us is about the characters and their interactions, their relationships. What Naughty Dog really nails is how the story is being told through the characters, environment, and the actors’ performances.
Even the way that the world is designed tells a story. Some areas are more subtle, with the placement of bodies or the way props are placed. Other levels are more in-your-face about what happened there. Make sure to explore the environment to pick up extra resources and items. Collectibles are back, as well as documents that reveal side stories and also supplement the plot. They’re optional but provide interesting insight into the game’s world.
I felt some things that I’ve never been made to feel while playing any game. The feelings of anger, loss, and numbness hit me hard at different points in the game. There were a couple of times I had to take a break from playing just to process some of what happened.
The performances in particular are a huge highlight in how the story is presented. Every actor brings their best in realizing Ellie, Joel, Dina, and the rest of the characters. The animators in particular deserve high praise for translating the actors’ work into even small movements and expressions.
The meat of the narrative is experienced through Ellie’s eyes; her thirst for revenge comes into direct conflict with her sense of identity and her desires. There are some bold shifts in Ellie’s character, with further insight into her past and what brought her to where she is in Part II. Joel is softer in this game, but the repercussions of his actions aren’t far behind. Everything that took place in The Last of Us has consequences, and nearly every important thread is addressed. You’re most likely not going to be happy with some of the events that take place, but this game doesn’t care.
Although some of the new characters, Laura Bailey’s in particular, are incredible, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson have a chemistry as Joel and Ellie that can’t be outdone. There’s something so uniquely dynamic and interesting about their relationship; it’s further pushed and complicated in this sequel. Some of the biggest character payoffs come from the interactions between these two, just like in the original game. I have to say though, Shannon Woodward as Dina is my favorite addition to the cast. There’s color added to the game that only she and her character could bring to life.
Overall, the narrative of this game is bold and often unpredictable. It has a lot to say about humanity’s worst but also about its best. It’s a story that’s well worth experiencing at least once through.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the most gorgeous, detailed, and best-running games I’ve played. Once the game loads your save file, there are no load screens while you play. Some are disguised by crawling through gaps or in-world events, but they’re seamlessly woven in.
There’s not much negative I can say about the graphics or performance of this game on the PlayStation 4 Pro. I don’t think I experienced any frame rate drops or really any problems with performance. There were several glitches that I ran into, but they were only visual.
I have to say that some of what Naughty Dog accomplished with character models is insane to me. Video games are pretty sneaky about having some things happen off screen because they’re so difficult to animate. In Part II, muscles tighten up and glisten with sweat in a way that’s almost too realistic. This is the first game where I’ve seen a shirt being taken off without any clipping or weird visual quirks.
As for the environment, I added some extra hours to my playthrough just by taking in the amount of detail in everything. Where other developers would create one or two items (such as a lawn chair), sprinkle them throughout the game, and call it a day, Naughty Dog decided they’d make five to seven different versions for just one area.
This has to be the single most detailed game that exists up to this point. Nothing out there compares; nothing comes even close. You may spend just a few seconds in one area and miss most of what is there. This amount of quality and polish isn’t necessary. The game would still get the message across if there was less to look at, but it adds so much more depth and realism to the world. It’s no wonder this game got delayed several times and took over half a decade to make.
The Last of Us has one of my favorite soundtracks in gaming. It sets the tone for the original game and presents some memorable themes as well. With Part II, Gustavo Santaolalla is joined by Mac Quayle, who wrote scores for TV series such as Mr. Robot and American Horror Story.
Sadly, this soundtrack is lacking the magic that the original had. There are more atmospheric songs than I would like, and while these songs enhance the game experience enough, there are fewer high points here. It’s a decent soundtrack, but I wouldn’t say it’s that special. There is one song that plays during the credits that you should stick around for, just a heads up.
I could spend a while ranting about the sound design in The Last of Us Part II but I’ll just say that it’s visceral and potent. Every weapon has a distinct sound that you will begin to recognize as your play time begins to add up. Striking enemies with any weapon produces some of the most satisfying, yet horrific sounds I’ve heard in a game.
The environment isn’t to be beat in the sound department, with whooshing gusts of wind, the sounds of insects and birds, and water crashing or smoothly trickling. My favorite sound has got to be the crunching of snow underneath Ellie’s feet.
Enemies also scream in agony, slowly choke on their own blood as they die, and call out their comrades’ names as they see them perish. You can easily gauge where enemies are located or what direction they’re rushing you from as well. It’s better with headphones than with a surround system.
This is a journey you’re not going to forget; it’s one that’s going to stay with you for a long time. There are some questionable decisions that characters make, but it serves to show the unpredictability and flawed nature of human beings. The exploration of humanity through a more pessimistic lens may be overbearing for some players, but it’s appropriate given the story that’s presented. This game wants to ruffle some feathers, and that’s okay.
The Last of Us Part II is one of the most complete, ambitious single-player games I’ve played. And despite all the doom and gloom, it’s fun as hell to play. If you’ve played the original, this is a must-play game on every level. If you haven’t, go back and play the first game. There is a short recap in this game that catches up new players if you really don’t feel like waiting.
There are a few personal nitpicks about the story that I can make, but they’re nothing that make the game any less amazing. When it comes down to it, The Last of Us Part II is the most near-perfect game I’ve played. Go out and get yourself a copy if you haven’t already. And maybe some tissues; you will probably need them.
Word player, note manipulator, and logic breaker. My favorite game is The Last of Us. I’ll argue with you about it all day. Try me. “To the edge of the universe and back, endure and survive…”
Whether it be due to a growing discontent with the trend-obsessive AAA industry or the fact that we are running out of unimpeachable masterpieces to reissue, the remaster-and-reboot initiative has cast a much wider net in recent years than it did during the PS3/360 generation. Where once it was only critical darlings or striking commercial successes that got an honorable makeover, companies like Devolver Digital and THQ Nordic have made it their goal to gauge interest in old IPs by bringing them to the present. Twelve years after the franchise reached rock bottom, Black Forest Games’ Destroy All Humans enters the field aiming to reinvigorate an unabashed cult classic.
Destroy All Humans is an incredibly faithful reboot of the 2005 original, rebuilt from the ground up in a shiny new engine while retaining its level design and dialogue. It is at once a strange mishmash of PS2-era third-person shooting, stealth, and incredibly light exploration flourishes, but also a game that holds its own identity fifteen years later. There’s a distinct brand of chaos upheld when conflict is at its peak. Albeit in fairly simplistic forms, Destroy All Humans covers enough gameplay types in quick succession to make it an easy, amusing ride, wrapped in a mischievous tone that’s tough to get angry at.
At its core, it’s a third-person shooter emboldened with an eye catching premise and lively weaponry. You are extraterrestrial nihilist Crypto-136, stranded in late 1950s America after your ship crashes. With the public already eager to declare anyone a Communist threat, your presence isn’t exactly greeted with open arms. Your intergalactic emperor Pox (legitimately voiced by Invader Zim) wants you to harvest human brains but said ambitions quickly turn into an all-out war. As you leap across a broad map of the United States, you distribute propaganda, steal technology, and snatch bodies under the veil of mass destruction.
Trapped in the odd time warp of old game preservation, the Destroy All Humans reboot lacks the open-world or co-op of its original sequel from 2006, but it for the first time gives the franchise a distinct visual style. Compared to the plain textures of the original, Destroy All Humans is now enlivened with a slightly cartoonish tint and motion captured animations. Crypto bounces across the screen in a fittingly rubbery fashion and objects like radioactive cows burst with bright hues. Strangely enough, a majority of the frame rate drops occur in cutscenes where character models also push past the uncanny valley and into Black Hole Sun extras. On a base PS4 however, the frame rate is consistently smooth during gameplay making your jetpack flight more majestic and the mobility of combat more satisfying.
There isn’t much more to combat than point, shoot, and jetpack out of the way, but the game greatly benefits from an arsenal all its own. The Zap-O-Matic stays with the player throughout the game’s entirety, which has unlimited ammo but an extended recharge rate. The targeting from one enemy to the next can get overcrowded but this is mostly surmounted by the electrical forces stringing enemies together, damaging them all simultaneously. Despite being your prototypical weapon, I relied on the Zap-O-Matic throughout the game as the most satisfying form of crowd control. The tendency of enemies to attack from all sides keeps the Zap-O-Matic from being a “press-to-win” function but it makes aiming a bit more of a generalized process.
You are soon rewarded with a Disintegrator Ray and Ion Detonator (the flamethrower and grenade launcher equivalents respectively), not to mention a certain type of probing tool to round out your layout. Conservative upgrades are available for each but the general balance makes it likely you will use special weapons to their brink (they run out of ammo fairly quickly) and then bring out the old reliable Zap. Destroy All Humans speaks in enemy quantity rather than strategy, but this tendency lands better on the PS4 than it did for PS2 as enemies can truly dominate the screen and shuffling around them can make for a winningly kinetic experience.
As individual battles rage on, expendable cops and soldiers give way to armored vehicles, turret systems, and what I’d estimate to be 50 ft. tall robots. Dashing away from enemy fire and hitting them from any direction you can are the means for success. Enemies truly only differ in amount of health and what type of gun they fire, but they do leverage each other’s presence to become a potentially overwhelming force. Enemies are always charging forward whether it’s in their interest or not and the cannon fodder never stops flooding.
The jetpack isn’t meant to take you to the stratosphere and instead allows you to hide away from enemies at the top of storefronts and glide to different elevations like an ugly Mary Poppins. The ability to scout humans from above truly comes in handy during body snatching missions. Much of the game is spent infiltrating county fairs and military bases by sneaking up on the right kind of civilian and snatching their likeness with the press of a button. Finding the right victim is very intuitive- you hijack a scientist to enter labs or a general to reach the depths of an army base. The biggest challenge comes from taking their form without getting caught by bystanders. Hiding behind a strategically placed boulder and aiming at the NPC is normally all it takes but the visual language is subtle enough to make some careful angling necessary. In most cases, getting caught amidst body snatching means game over (the game is nothing if not linear), but the checkpoints are very generous.
Once you are in the body, you rather metaphorically keep possession of the likeness by scanning other NPCs’ thoughts. Alongside newly animated cutscenes, this is where much of the game’s humor manifests. A joking disclaimer about the humor of Destroy All Humans only being up to the moral standards of 2005 prefaces the game, but barring some candid gender-neutral anal probe discussions, most of the humor stems from very breezy satire of the 1950s. I physically laughed once at an NPC’s internal monologue about them totally not knowing what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, and the mild prodding at overbearing American masculinity and Cold War paranoia is sustained by charming voice acting.
The game’s sardonic streak most strongly manifests in interactive cutscenes where in the body of a politician or general, you choose dialogue to appease the petrified public. You could clinically describe the satire as simple and certainly unsubtle but the game’s ultimate ambition here is to slip into a pastiche of 1950s horror and educational videos and it approximates it very lovingly. I was also pleasantly surprised by how few times I was confronted by the same piece of character dialogue over-and-over again, and much of the game’s personality blossoms from here. Destroy All Humans’ tone may not raise the bar for its medium, but it’s the right tone for a game whose loftiest goals are just to make you chuckle. The campaign experience is unanimously solid, it’s just the game’s willful constraints that hinder long-term enjoyment.
The biggest flaw with Destroy All Humans is the limited depth of its mechanics. The game is mostly divided into three modes- on-foot shooting, stealth, and UFO piloting. Environments are stand alone, connected by the menu screen’s map interface. Your UFO offers the most freedom for destruction, but maps are still condensed to what would have been a PS2-era appropriate size. It is undeniably fun to excavate a city’s buildings with your Death Ray. However, it’s generally just a fifteen minute process that regenerates once you leave the level. The original developer of Destroy All Humans (2005) Pandemic Studios partially made their name on unbridled urban destruction. Fifteen years later, their model remains fun but short lived.
Destroy All Humans’ ability to make escort missions and defending stationary objects remarkably painless is a double-edged sword. Destroy All Humans doesn’t really minimize frustration through innovations in AI or combat, it’s mostly just a very easy game. It probably best fits a tween demographic, as the humor is too sordid for youngins and the game is fairly simple for seasoned players. It is cackle-inducing to trigger a barbecue stove explosion from a distance to take out enemies, but unlike a similar operation in Hitman, it’s all artifice. You aim at the stove from a shielding distance, hold the square button, and the deed is done. Gameplay can just feel a bit too automatic to truly stimulate beyond visual absurdity. The ability in the original game to strike civilians with a dancing fever so they didn’t notice you was both a hoot and an added strategic measure for handling getting caught by enemies. Here, it’s just a diverting trinket.
This overprotective effect also makes the secondary objectives of taking out enemies in a certain way or body snatching a certain amount of times fun but instantly attainable. Returning to sections of the map opens up additional challenges involving racing against time, brain scanning against time, and UFO blasting against time. Adult players will likely feel that the game’s training wheels are permanently affixed. The additions made to Destroy All Humans are heartfelt and well-integrated, but sit squarely within the original game’s confines. For those who have played the original game and enjoy it (like myself), it’s a detailed, sturdy remake. The game on its own merits, however sticks out a bit in 2020, not just for being unique.
Yet Destroy All Humans’ presentation is strong enough and its gameplay so resoundingly capable that if the mere possibility of throwing radioactive cows at enemy soldiers appeals to you, the campaign’s nine hours of unrelenting anarchy won’t make for a bad $30-40 spent. As an advocate for Black Forest Games’ Fade to Silence last year, the studio has moved from a game that was punishing and rugged to one that is polished and very easygoing. As a way to escape humanity, you could do worse than destroying it.
This review of Destroy All Humans is based on the PS4 version. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.
Because of a lack of mainstream publicity, it’s hard to see Desperados III being considered as one of the best games of 2020 by the end of the year, but there’s no question in my mind that it deserves to be in the conversation. Mimimi Games did very little in terms of new ideas and instead expertly perfected and utilized a plethora of old concepts. With the exception of some rare inconsistencies and bugs, Desperados III tells a story of revenge complete with interesting characters to help carry a diverse and engaging gameplay experience.
Strategy games, both real-time and turn-based, operate on the edge of a cliff where backing up with simplistic and repetitive mechanics often leads to boredom, and taking the extra step too far by including too many complex mechanics sends the game flying off the edge with nothing to really grab hold of. Desperados III balances on this cliff stiff as a plank while juggling on a unicycle. It includes five characters with four different skills each and a huge emphasis on stealth. Mimimi Games goes to great lengths to manage how you use them, which leads to endless unique situations where the same characters and abilities still provide compelling experiences. The developers take great care to consistently ask questions like, “What if this character wasn’t able to use this ability?” or, “How would this combination of characters play out?” You’re consequently forced to think about alternate approaches to situations in order to remain hidden throughout the game. This way, when the final levels hit you, you’re completely prepared to manage all of the characters and their abilities at once with dozens upon dozens of enemies in various formations waiting to shoot you down.
These enemies serve as the most significant indication of just how much thought was put into the level design. All enemies follow pretty consistent paths that give them vision over certain parts of the map. Like the previous Desperados games you have access to each enemy’s cone of vision, complete with a solid part where the enemy can always see you and a striped part where you’re still hidden if you stay crouched. The game then comes with some rules. Implicit rules, such as grounded enemies having striped vision on a two-story balcony and no vision of a three-story balcony, give Desperados III plenty of “Aha!” moments that spur you to think creatively and learn throughout the game. Explicit rules, like hiding in bushes conceals you as long as you’re crouched, coat the gameplay with inherent difficulty that makes every level progression like carving further into a juicy steak. With these rules as a base, every situation has been designed fairly and given tremendous consideration. This is often evidenced by the small things that you don’t notice. For example, you may not have noticed how convenient it is that an enemy is just barely out of another enemy’s sight, or how a wagon just happens to be right there to give you cover, allowing you to make good on a planned kill with more ease. While some situations require a rare level of timing and positioning, nothing is impossible thanks to these smart decisions.
Perhaps you can take out a group of three guards, but can you take them out and drag their bodies into a nearby bush before another guard rounds the corner? If you can’t, you better believe that the alarm will go off, spawning a fresh batch of enemies to deal with. Maybe you can take out the guy rounding the corner first so that he’s not an issue anymore. Well, there’s another guard on a balcony who has constant vision over that guard. Okay, now the approach is to kill the guard on the balcony first, kill the guard rounding the corner, then kill the three guards with a synchronized attack. Unless, of course, you can find a way to take all five of them out at the same time, or lure someone away from their usual position, or distract some of them, or simply sneak past them without them ever knowing you were there. This is a rather simple example that you may encounter less than halfway through the game, and it only gets more intricate the further you go.
To pull off puzzle-like circumstances such as this, showdown mode becomes an integral component to the game. Taking down multiple guards at the same time is difficult when constantly switching between characters and choosing abilities, so showdown mode allows you to pause time (except on the highest difficulty) and plan out several actions that are executed simultaneously. This opens up tons of new situations that the designers could play around with, knowing full well that with showdown mode, players can make previously impossible challenges as easy as pressing enter. The door is then open to brand new challenges that push showdown mode to its limits.
While this all certainly covers the fundamentals of the various intricate systems present, this just begins to scratch the surface of the experience. In everything I saw, I only ran across a few puzzling issues. The game focuses heavily on quicksaves and quickloads, so if you screw up, you can immediately step back to your save and try again. When doing this to retry something that will cause an enemy to search the area, including a nearby bush you may be hiding in, you get a glimpse at how truly random and frustrating the AI can be. You could try it once, watch an enemy search the area, accidentally screw up, then reload your save to try again. When doing this, you’ll often find that the enemy’s search path the second time through is different. They may even decide to suddenly search the bush you’re sitting in, even though they didn’t the first time. This can lead to bouts of constantly reloading, hoping for an outcome where the enemy doesn’t search the bush you’re sitting in. You’ll also find yourself pulling your hair out at times when you’re reminded that your character slows way down when you stand within a guard’s eyesight. While the level design was thought out to a considerable degree, the same can’t quite be said about these strange aspects.
Additionally, there are one or two enemies throughout the game that are bugged and can see you in bushes. It’s likely an extra script or something wasn’t attached to this enemy the same way it was attached to all the other ones during development, which is a simple mistake that’s glaring when it happens in the middle of the game. Desperados III does great work creating tension and forcing concentration, and when the game suddenly breaks like that, you’re left very on-edge and frustrated. Other than that, the experience is pretty much entirely bug-free, and you’ll feel compelled to forgive the few bugs you run into because of the overall experience.
The storyline then takes this experience and puts a strong exclamation point on it. Is it a story that’ll be adapted by Steven Spielberg anytime soon? Pft! Hell no. It’s a simple revenge story where John Cooper puts together a band of misfits to take down a wealthy bastard with too much power named Vincent DeVitt and an old nemesis named Frank. It even has trouble sticking to this basic premise, as it’s difficult at times to pin down who the true main character is. In chapters I and III, it’s made perfectly clear that it’s John Cooper, but in the middle, the game tries to give more of the spotlight to the other characters- Doc McCoy, Kate, Hector, and Isabelle. This fails miserably, as John Cooper suddenly fades a bit into the background and we’re still left with little character motivation for Isabelle.
However, it does perfectly what a game story is supposed to do: it gives context to the gameplay. In fact, it does this better than most games on the market. The story and your party’s circumstances directly affect which characters are present for a mission, which abilities those characters have, what the mission objective is, and how you approach the mission. Maybe the narrative dictates that one of the characters is passed out and you have to worry about carrying them through the mission. Maybe you’re without weapons because they were confiscated for some reason. Maybe a couple of the characters start together in one part of the map and another combination of characters starts in another. These all go on to spawn a lot of the gameplay systems previously mentioned.
The characters have a decent hand in all of it, too, especially since the narrative does a decent job of putting them at the forefront. One of the best details in this regard is the way the story unfolds throughout a level. Characters talk to each other as you reach certain checkpoints, and these short conversations reveal more about their relationships and how each one belongs in the situation. Further context comes from the snappy voice lines that come when you choose a character, select a new destination, or pick an ability. The variety keeps things from getting stale, and each level comes with its own new voice lines that fit the story properly. Thankfully, this and the fitting sounds design help distract from a lackluster soundtrack that can get a bit stale.
All of this culminates into Desperados III, a brilliant effort with little to complain about. In fact, there’s so much to praise that I insist you go and play it for yourself to truly do the game justice. We didn’t even get to touch on swimming, climbing things, footprints, longcoats, achievements, or special challenges, all of which open up new doors that will leave you playing this game for up to sixty hours without ever getting bored. What more could you ask for from a game?
This review of Desperados III is based on the PC version. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.
It’s tough to properly review a video game when you aren’t able to finish it due to a game-breaking bug. If I’m going to be honest, I’m relieved that Summer in Mara broke. I can tell that developer Chibig poured a lot of love into it, but the game is a mess of bizarre design choices and poorly implemented ideas. It’s a shame that this Kickstarted game didn’t receive the polish it deserved.
I can’t recommend this game to anyone, even without taking the game-breaking bug into account. Let’s get into what went wrong with Summer in Mara and the few things that did work well.
You start the game as Koa, a little girl who’s never known a life outside of her home island. Koa was adopted and raised by Haku, a Qüido whose in-game model is kind of terrifying. The story is simple and told through excessive, uninspired dialogue. It doesn’t take long to realize that Koa is a spoiled brat who constantly tells every person she meets that she’s… not a child? I understand that children can be irrational and immature, but Koa is literally a child.
The game’s story starts out fine but quickly becomes obnoxious to the point of being intolerable. Almost every character Koa runs into lectures her on being polite and having manners; most of those same characters don’t even follow their own advice and are incredibly rude. At first glance, it may seem like the game is trying to teach children the importance of treating others well. But is this game even aimed at children?
It’s okay for a story to repeat ideas, especially if it’s trying to make a point. The problem with Summer in Mara‘s approach is how little this actually benefits the narrative. Everyone repeats the same information, and if not for the art, I’d think most of the side characters are one person placed in different locations.
Another weak point in Summer in Mara is the lackluster farming mechanics. Farming is central to the game, but its implementation becomes a huge burden for the player. Koa’s home island is the only location I ran into where you can plant and harvest. This means you have to travel by boat and through a couple of loading screens to reach it when you’re off on other islands. You aren’t required to do this just a few times. The game forces you to make dozens of these trips to get anything done. had to travel back to Koa’s home island too many times just to grow one or two vegetables, just to complete a mission, come back, and repeat the process over and over.
Traveling by boat isn’t very satisfying. You don’t really do anything other than move in one of several directions. Opening your map to see where you need to go is inconvenient considering how often you may need to look at it. You can dive from your boat later on in the game, but the controls are a mess and you sort of have to figure it out while Koa drowns.
My biggest gripe with Summer in Mara is the game’s quest structure. Every single action you take as Koa is in service of a series of fetch quests that make up the entire game. Some of these quests aren’t necessary to progress the main story, but even the main story feels like a fetch quest. Sometimes you’re rewarded with money or cool items, but it’s all so you can do more tedious quests. Every character in this game believes the universe revolves around their needs and that Koa is there to help for no reason. Characters’ stories connect to one another through this web of fetch quests and Koa gets almost nothing in return.
When it comes down to it, it’s a bunch of adults manipulating a girl who isn’t even 10 years old. It’d be easy to let it slip if it was part of the story, but that’s the whole narrative in summary.
Music and art direction are Summer in Mara’s two strengths… or they would be if the music triggered properly. For some reason, music isn’t implemented well in this game. A song will start playing when talking to a character and then suddenly stop for no apparent reason. There are moments when a song only played for about 10 seconds before it was cut off by an event or by nothing. The soundtrack for this game is actually pretty relaxing and just overall great. It’s a shame the player won’t get to hear it that often, since most of the game is spent without it.
I would say that the highlight of this entire experience is the animated, hand-drawn scenes. They’re done with a level of love and attention that I wish the main game received. They’re quirky, cute, and they have a unique personality that the game fails to capture.
Let’s get back to talking about the game-breaking bug. I don’t know how long a typical playthrough of Summer in Mara is, but I only got to experience eight hours of the game. Three of those hours were spent trying to figure out if the game was actually broken or if I was overlooking something. Sadly, it was the former. One of the main quests required that I return to the main island by boat; the thing is that the game wouldn’t let me board the boat, which was the only way I could advance the story. I tried finishing up the side quests but it didn’t fix anything. After a couple weeks of booting up and hoping the problem went away, I gave up on the game. I wasn’t about to start a new game save only to arrive at the same point.
Summer in Mara doesn’t have anything to offer that other games haven’t done better. Ultimately, it’s a muddled mess of design choices that don’t weave together well. Skip this game. It’s not worth your or anyone else’s time.
This review of Summer in Mara is based on the Nintendo Switch version. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Word player, note manipulator, and logic breaker. My favorite game is The Last of Us. I’ll argue with you about it all day. Try me. “To the edge of the universe and back, endure and survive…”
Tabletop and video games take on many different distinctions that make it difficult to transition between the two, and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes exemplifies this in every possible way. They rely heavily on the complexities of the tabletop game The Dark Eye, yet the entirety of the game offers a simplified, automated take on these complexities. You’re left with a hollow experience that doesn’t even keep your attention through the end. This game will serve as a shining piece of evidence of why tabletop systems and mechanics don’t engage a player when translated into video game form.
Stat and character sheets are integral parts of tabletop games because you’re constantly referencing it to determine strategy, outcomes, and role-playing moments. However, when these things are automated for you, all of these stats become cumbersome and virtually meaningless to the player. The developers at Random Potion Oy fundamentally miss this. Sitting back and watching as virtual rolls are made for you and algorithms calculate the outcomes encompasses the entirety of this game. The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes gives you few actions to actually take, all of which are made by simply clicking on a spot or an enemy. While point-and-click adventures have a place in gaming, there’s no saving a game that resorts to this and gives no mental stimulation whatsoever.
Point-and-click games need to have some sort of stakes or tension in order to keep your attention. You can see this in a game as old as Grim Fandango, where you have an engaging story giving context to unique and interesting puzzles. You also find it in a game like Desperados III, which released just one week after The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, where the constant threat of alerting enemies and being spotted keeps you on the edge of your seat. Somehow, The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes misses all of this in favor of automated gameplay and puzzles that aren’t even puzzles. Finding different stones lying around a particular area and putting them where the game tells you they belong is not a puzzle.
Naturally, this game is largely meant to be a multiplayer game in which you can adventure with your friends and clear dungeons much like in a tabletop RPG, but three other players by my side wouldn’t give the game the purpose and stakes that it needs. That needs to come from the designers, and unfortunately, they fell asleep at the wheel with this one. It’s hard to imagine that through all of the meetings they must’ve had in pre-production, nobody stood up and pointed out that the player isn’t actually doing anything throughout the game. The most entertaining part of the game is sifting through the vast number of options you can choose for your character. However, this is all rendered pointless by the inability to truly play your role. No matter what, your job is to click on an enemy until they’re dead, move onto the next room, and repeat that cycle until you find what you need to end the level.
As you do this, AI companions that supposedly have “their own personalities” wander around and do nothing but search areas for loot and attack enemies. They never say anything, they’re generic, they get bugged and end up standing in one place for long periods of time (unless this is part of what the developers call “personality”), and they don’t do much in combat beyond hitting the enemy, so few notable special abilities. Enemy AI isn’t really much better. I imagine AI in general took the least amount of work out of everything in this game, except maybe the ability checks.
Ability checks in a tabletop RPG give another sense of randomness and tension because you never know what you’re going to get. This sets you up to think on your feet in order to follow up on whatever your dice roll is. Even this feels intentionally unsatisfying and disgustingly bland. Just like everything else, ability checks happen automatically and have nothing to do with your decisions. Furthermore, the few decisions you can make for ability checks, such as trying to hear what’s on the other side of a door, mean nothing because if you fail, you can just continue to try again as many times as you like until it works. When these checks do work, it’s often presented to you in the lamest, most boring way possible. In the case of the example of listening through a door, either you hear something on the other side, or you don’t. That’s it. No clanking of metal. No heavy breathing. No cries for help. No detail at all whatsoever. In a game like this the game is essentially the dungeon master, but if my DM treated ability checks like this, I wouldn’t play.
I’d also frown upon a DM giving us a long mission with no point to it. A story should give context to your missions in just about any RPG. The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes throws that out the window as well by only giving you some missions that relate to the overarching story. All other missions are pointless and yield nothing but loot and reward cards that supposedly improve your player. Of course, the loot is repetitive, stale, and boring in every sense, and reward cards are a frail attempt at showing character progression.
I wish I could say that there’s at least something to be had from visual and technical standpoints, but anyone who has never heard of the game would look at it and tell you it’s from 2005. While an isometric view isn’t necessarily indicative of an older game, it certainly doesn’t help. The recommended specs speak to its technical and visual issues. Simply put, nobody bothered to optimize it. Models have no details, the thing looks archaic, and you can’t see other parts of the map that you’re not in, yet the developers want you to have a current-gen processor and 12 GB of RAM. 12 GB! Insanity! DOOM Eternal is one of the most hardware-intensive games ever created, and it only recommends having 8 GB. GTA V is 8 GB. You know what else recommends 12 GB? Red Dead Redemption 2! How could this sad excuse for a game possibly need 12 GB of RAM? Load times are ridiculously long on modern hardware considering how the game teleports you back fifteen years. I play Skyrim on the same PC I used to review The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, and while Skyrim’s load times are nearly instantaneous, this game will spend thirty seconds loading.
Okay, hardware rant over. Based on what’s there, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that this game even made it into production when it did. I’ve never seen so much hard work by developers completely wasted before. I can’t think of a single redeeming quality about this experience. Take a look at the date this review was released. As of that date, this is easily the worst game I’ve ever played. Not one time did I have fun, smile, chuckle, or even say, “huh, interesting.” It’s these types of games that remind you of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the game that nearly took down the entire industry when it was still in its infancy. This one needs to be avoided at all costs.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.
“My mind’s an endless storm out in the cold unknown.”
My relationship with X-Com is one of unrequited love and passionate hatred. Even though I got into the turn-based party quite late with Firaxis’ 2012 version of Enemy Unknown, I still found myself absorbed in an adventure that took a year from my life. It was an astonishing time, albeit the victory was short-lived when I remembered that every battle was one accomplished with save-scumming, which was expected, even if it still took the wind out of my sails.
Even now, 8 years after Enemy Unknown set the AA-market on fire with a vivid reminder as to how intense turn-based combat can be, no other developer has been able to recreate the same fire — not even Firaxis themselves. X-Com 2 lacked the same fiery strategy, even with a stealth angle, Massive Chalice over-complicated how you could approach the enemy, and Phantom Doctrine suffered from being too dry. Let’s see how Dread Nautical can fare from the rest of the squad.
This is the latest title from Zen Studios, a team responsible for the 3,452 different pinball tables present in Pinball FX. Varied landslide of over-sensationalized bar games aside, Zen have also seen themselves dabbling in various fun little exercises for casual gamers, like the tower-defense breeze of Castlestorm, or the quite in-depth Infinite Minigolf. They certainly have an eye for easy-to-pick-up games, and Dread Nautical is no exception.
You play as a survivor, lounging about on a ship named Hope with various other hedonistic bastards whose middle names might as well be “decadence”. While everyone is spitting on the workers unlucky enough to reside underneath the Second-Class deck, the capitalism that fueled their cruise trip collapses, and the souls of the damned begin to take over, bringing the ship into an inescapable loop of purgatory. It’s up to you and whoever you can find among the vast ship and its decks in order to find a way out of this madness.
Dread Nautical‘s gameplay is something worth observing, if only for how ambitious it seems to be. From the beginning, you have one premade survivor with a small backstory as to their presence on the ship, and you’re stuck in a small room with an elevator connected to every single part of the ship, inexplicably. If this elevator is to be believed, then the ship is the size of Blackpool Tower using the Sphinx as a skateboard, but nevertheless, you jump into the elevator and begin your journey to freedom.
If those strained opening paragraphs weren’t enough of a clue, then allow me to reiterate that Dread Nautical‘s gameplay is heavily inspired by the meaty dish of X-Com, with a side-order of roguelite mechanics, but we’ll get to that. With a maximum squad of three, you barrel through the abandoned leisurely spots of the ship, fighting whatever nasties come up, until you reach the helm and sound the foghorn. Once the foghorn is sounded, you and your party pass out and wake up once more where you began, with more of the ship opening up.
When you’re in the vicinity of an enemy, you’ll immediately switch to a combat mode, which limits your moves based on your party’s stats. You and the monsters take turns kicking each others’ arses. What you’re given to fight is based on what you’ve managed to find before the battle: bandages, lead pipes, molotovs, and what skills your party has, from stat buffs to AoE attacks.
It’s all surprisingly in-depth, as there’s quite a few ways to dispatch your squad and dispose of your enemies. All of the weaponry available in the game have many factors put into their viability in battle, like the range of an attack, the swing, and how much power it’ll require to use in a turn. The party skills available also offer a lot of approaches in how to eliminate threats.
There’s even a chance for stealth, which is a surprising element. Say you’ve only aggroed one of a potential three enemies; this means you have the chance to kill them before the rest of the squad realizes and clutters up affairs. Swipe them a few times with a fist or sharp weapon, and they’re out for the count without an issue. What weapons can and can’t cause a ruckus seem like random choices, but the strategy is there to use, refreshingly.
Problems quickly break through the skin, like the size of the battlegrounds. You’re mostly stuck to fighting in exceptionally cluttered arenas which offer no cover, just annoyance. All of these melee weapons offering a wide array of ways to attack don’t do much when you’re mostly fighting in thin ruins that can’t optimize how they work.
Ranged weaponry is also a bit broken. Grab a pistol, some darts, even a set of golf balls, and you’ll be pinging enemies across a battlefield with nary a care, with the enemy none the wiser as to how they’re being beaten. Mind you, this does work the same way for the enemy, and they have more than a few tricks in their roster, which is impressive in size, even if it needs a bit of culling.
You’ve got the regular melee fodder, who slowly become more powerful over time in different forms, whether it be in their speed, or their power. Spitters will be the first ranged enemies you come across, and the aforementioned lack of cover leads to your group taking a lot of frustrating and unnecessary hits. Nevertheless, these groups are manageable, and in the case of many of the common melee enemies, the arenas can be suited for them.
There are also Pushers, whose entire strategy seems to be disruption of a well-oiled machine, like your team. As we get further down the line, some oddities begin to crop up, like Rollers and Grabbers. They’re the same monsters in principle, possessing identical stunlocking abilities, with the Grabbers having to be right next to an affected party member. Rollers are vulnerable in the sense that they have to travel to you in order to stun you as well, just… like… the Grabbers… wait.
Rollers shouldn’t exist, as their attitude and playing style consists entirely of another melee variant, the “Runners”, except they can stun. Their role is already being filled by other monsters, they’re more like a gnat lacking a purpose. As you get deeper and deeper into the roster, their own gimmicks are fooled by the game’s own obvious mechanics and the design behind it.
For example, there are Trappers, who can spawn in 1×1 traps around the arena, potentially stalling your team when it comes to approaching the enemy. These traps never had any reason put into their positioning, however, usually spawning in corners or in wide-open spaces you can simply walk around. Even if you find a trap blocking a path forward, the proc-gen for the arenas usually abides by the rule of having 2 separate entryways.
The most egregious of the roster comes in the form of Blurrs. These are beings of pure air or… something like that, but their big trick is that once you hit them, they’ll instantly teleport the character you attacked with to another part of the map. While you can kinda see where they’re going with this, it’s a monster that the game can barely comprehend itself.
When one of your dude(ttes) gets teleported, the game fails to understand that they’re out of the designated combat zone, forcing them to a strict set of moves like everyone else. It’s a colossal spanner in terms of how its executed, especially since by the time they arrive in the game, monsters will spawn in previous rooms. It drags the pacing into the dirt and the difficulty into the sky. It’s absurd.
The pacing already suffers when you still have to move in grid-specific patterns outside of combat. Forcing this control scheme permanently results in awkward journeys as you attempt to get from one part of the room to the next. Why you couldn’t freely move with the thumbsticks outside of combat is anybody’s guess, but beyond that, it slowly drains on the player.
While exploring, you’ll find various potential upgrades to your equipment and weaponry, and you’ll also find direct upgrade materials that you use outside of main gameplay. These come in the forms of Runes and Scrap. Runes specifically upgrade your characters, and the Scrap is used for everything else. Upgrading and repairing weapons, crafting defensive equipment, upgrading the actual upgrading booths, it all relies on Scrap.
This is where the game’s simplicity clashes with more free-forming goals. The rate of obtaining scrap doesn’t run parallel with the increasing prices of further upgrades. Even later on, as you obtain rarer and more powerful weapons and armor, it feels like you have to replay more and more earlier levels, but this grinds on the mind. When it comes to the difficulty scaling of each deck and your own party’s skills, it’s so dead-on and precise that anything higher is a Sisyphus ordeal and anything lower is a slog.
Maybe this would work better as a straight-up rogue-like with X-Com‘s mechanics, and that’s the biggest flaw Dread Nautical possesses. It cannot comprehend the balance of this extremely linear progression with a more haphazard core of danger and difficulty. It causes the game to be unsure of which one to fully commit to, ending with a gameplay loop that slowly falls apart as it gets faster.
There is a difficulty that puts all of its heart and soul into the rogue-like mechanics, but it’s also the hardest setting. There’s no Ironman challenge in Dread Nautical, outside of the hardest setting also possessing it. It wants you to go hard or go home, and if you can’t keep up, sorry little fella. Maybe our more bloated approach will do better for you, which is a shame, because as it stands, this is probably the best X-Com clone to be released yet.
While the difficulty is all over the place in terms of how it wants to directly challenge the player, whether it be resource management or tough odds, the need to save-scum is gone. It’s this accidental mishap of not knowing what genre should take center stage that kind of saves it from being a freak misfit. It’s not without its issues, like the bloated monster roster or the simple currencies being too simple for actual player progression, but this is still fine.
It’s surprising to see a title as modest as Dread Nautical. It’s a fairly beefy game with a surprisingly small price tag, in comparison to its competitors at least. For a gameplay concept so few have grasped as expertly as Firaxis, it’s weird to see the strongest contender so far be the studio more in tune with an overrated pub sport than anything else.
Dread Nautical has several strengths, but it also has several faults, one of which potentially crippling its core. It’s a dastardly monkey’s paw situation; it’s what is arguably the most reasonably-priced, turn-based strategy title to come out since the resurgence of the genre, but you’re paired with the more demanding and imperfect preset conditions of a rogue-like, a balancing act many have yet to grasp.
This Review of Dread Nautical was based upon the Xbox One version of the game. A review copy was provided for this purpose.
Einstein once said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’ An oddly applicable statement when discussing The Innsmouth Case, a H. P. Lovecraft-themed, choose-your-own-adventure game. It’s a genre that’s often criticized for its obtuse logic and how it makes the player retread a lot of familiar ground as they hope for a favourable outcome of events. But does The Innsmouth Case manage to do enough to shake the trappings of its genre to make for an entertaining and compelling game?
In a self-aware nod to film noir, things kick off just like any detective story does. A femme fatale walks into a PI’s office and offers him a job he can’t refuse. The case? A young girl called Tabitha has gone missing, suspected of being kidnapped in the enigmatic coastal town of Innsmouth. Upon arrival, it’s immediately clear that the town isn’t what it seems. Your detective does everything to suppress the Wicker Man vibes of the situation and soldiers on to solve the case.
It’s worth mentioning that The Innsmouth Case doesn’t play like a ‘whodunit’ detective game. There are no clues to collect, no witnesses to badger into confessions, and no revelatory leaps of logic. This is a classic choose-your-own-adventure game, meaning the gameplay largely consists of clicking through numerous dialogue trees and seeing where that takes you. It’s an antiquated approach to gameplay that’s initially charming, but that good will dissipates once the trial and error nature of the genre rears its head.
Locating the kidnapped girl turns out to be a McGuffin for the true gameplay objective: seeing all of the game’s endings. Not to be one-upped by Nier: Automata’s 26 endings, The Innsmouth Case boasts 27 unique conclusions, which is about a dozen too many. Your choices inevitably result in your detective getting shot, mauled by ferrets, or transformed into an eldritch horror. When any of those things happen, the game ends, prompting you to reload the journey from a previous checkpoint to hunt for alternative outcomes. While this is standard within the genre, The Innsmouth Case doesn’t do anything to expedite this process. The provided list of rewind time checkpoints are placed way too far back in the story, forcing you to replay lengthy sections before you can return to remake pivotal decisions. To make matters worse, if you unwittingly start wandering towards an ending you’ve already experienced, there’s no quick way to backpedal to a previous dialogue tree. Instead, you have to endure the ending playing out for what may be the upteenth time before you get the chance to turn back the clock and try again. As a result, working the case inadvertently becomes a test of patience that’d decidedly play quicker and easier if it were a book, not a game.
To combat this somewhat, the game wisely treats endings like ‘collectible dead ends’ – there’s even an in-game achievement menu that showcases all the conclusions you’ve discovered. However, the unfortunate side effect of having so many endings is how it trivializes your journey through the story. It’s difficult to stay emotionally invested in the case when whatever choices you make could result in a wacky outcome. Some of which don’t even constitute endings! I earned a ‘Game Over’ screen after simply attending a wellness spa treatment. I didn’t escape Innsmouth or die a gruesome death, but the game still unceremoniously plopped me back to the rewind screen once the scene concluded. The game wants you to enjoy hunting for every ending, but your motivation to do so will likely wane after finding only a handful, since the process is inherently unfulfilling.
Choose your own adventure games typically live or die on the quality of their writing, and thankfully, the writing here is admittedly decent. Detailed location descriptions immediately give players a great sense of place while liberal use of short sentences during life and death sequences heighten the tension effectively. Similarly, your self-deprecating detective’s internal monologues fit the modern-day film noir tone. Though he’s not an especially unique character, it’s sometimes entertaining to see his inner voice conflict with his actions. The prose occasionally has a tendency to get a bit carried away with itself, so some brevity would help, especially since you’ll be re-reading or skipping so much of it just to get back onto your desired progression path.
The game’s sense of humour consistently falls flat, though, since the writer repeatedly selects the lowest hanging fruits as avenues for comedy. There are gags about veganism, mormons, and fat, obnoxious tourists. For a game that so readily pokes fun at film noir cliches, it’s hypocritical when the writing then indulges in stereotypes for a cheap laugh. Characters with joke names like ‘Muriel Poopingplace’ only serve to lower the game’s tone even further, and it made interacting with this world occasionally feel like rifling through a Cards Against Humanity deck written by tittering teenagers. When ‘9/11 was an inside job’ was prompted as a dialogue option after a murderous cultist asked my detective if he had any last words, I let out an audible groan. While the writing shows genuine signs of craft, the authors at Robot Pumpkin Games consistently let themselves down with a lack of maturity.
An appreciable effort has gone into giving this text-heavy game some visual flair. The presentation as a whole is reminiscent of board game box art. The town of Innsmouth glistens like fool’s gold during the day, but skulking shadows darken the streets at night as if to say, ‘you’re not welcome here.’ Many citizens of Innsmouth even have lightly animated character portraits that bob up and down during conversations. It ain’t exactly Pixar, but their designs help you fill in the blanks when your imagination fails.
Sound design is serviceable, if a little boring. The same piece of piano-led elevator music plays in the harbour, the town center, and the police station, which makes exploring feel a bit stale. Though some scenes, like the beach, use soundscapes effectively. Some more bespoke hustle and bustle in other areas would give them a greater sense of identity.
Playing The Innsmouth Case is a stark reminder why choose-your-own-adventure games never really caught on. Though the writing valiantly attempts to honour H. P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, few will ultimately have the patience to whittle through the game’s labyrinthe of narrative choices while labouring through repeated chunks of text and juvenile jokes. If you’re an honest, die-hard fan of the genre, there may be some fun to be had here, but for everyone else, it’s best to leave this case closed.
This review was based upon the PC version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.
Writer of words for tired eyes and lover of games that make me smile. Blogger and YouTube content creator who can’t keep quiet when it comes to gaming. Don’t like my work? Fight me IRL in Smash Brothers.
“Looking down into the water, it’s hard to make out your face.”
You know, it’s crazy how in all of this advancement into making games fun and educational hasn’t led into the two meeting each other for younger audiences. I highly doubt you’re going to find a pre-teen kid who is down for some Civilization or Crusader Kings, so it’s only fair that a more interactive and accessible core is granted for these types of lessons. Thank Christ for games like Beyond Blue, in that regard.
This is the latest fully-fledged title from E-Line Media, a publisher and developer that has been making pretty hefty waves in the name of accessible and pioneering games. Their arty platformer Never Alone was a wonderful little stroll through the stories of the Iñupiat tribe, and their school-ready remix of Minecraft dubbed “MinecraftEdu“. These are all the signs of a group ready to make sure that gaming reaches the audience necessary to expand, and each new addition in their catalog makes it much more admirable.
You play as Mirai, a woman who is eager to high-five whales until they grow human arms. She’s part of a team that includes the timid Andre and the marine biologist Irene, who’re exploring a part of the Western Pacific while streaming it live to the world. On the way, Mirai becomes enamored with a specific family of sperm whales, investigates a phenomenon involving the malnutrition of nearby aquatic life, and deals with her sister, Ren, aiding their aunt, who is suffering from dementia.
This all sounds like a bit of a mouthful, doesn’t it? In actuality, it is, even though it shouldn’t be. Beyond Blue isn’t necessarily a long game, involving several operations and deep dives that are quite linear in their presentation, but the story is fairly dense, although it shouldn’t be for this type of educational gathering. A lot of the time, you’re given dialogue choices that are supposed to determine your actions in how the story progresses, which isn’t implemented properly, but included nonetheless.
It’s an odd inclusion, but it feels like Beyond Blue wants to commit to this dialogue choice cliche purely because Never Alone had a story as well. Although, Never Alone‘s story could easily grasp the notion that what followed was a campfire tale, stories told by generations of this tribe. Beyond Blue doesn’t have that distinction yet still bombards you with irrelevant dialogue, with its only reason to exist being for vague callbacks.
The theme of family plays a part in almost every aspect, and those thematic elements are extremely strong throughout. Whether it’s Mirai choosing to live out in the sea to be closer to her dreams, Irene not having a connection to her daughter, or the whales struggle through these turbulent times– They’re there, in full force. It’s just that the game trips up trying to have its cake and eat it too.
At the very least, you can say that Beyond Blue’s story isn’t completely ham-fisted in nature, but the dialogue choices knee-cap it into something that resembles an ego trip. Why not just have Mirai struggle with her sisters inability to care for her aunt and leave it at that? Whether Mirai asks how Ren’s school troubles are going, or how their aunt is, her adventure in the ocean will leave her with the same conclusions, whether she asks her sister about school or not.
It’s a shame the story’s in rocky waters, because Beyond Blue’s gameplay is fairly smooth sailing. It’s swimming dangerously close to walking simulator territory, albeit with a set of flippers attached. You’re plopped into a random part of the ocean, and you’re tasked with inspecting the marine life around you, with various mysteries and objectives cropping up. You inspect a buoy, you tag the sounds, you go to those sounds, and you do your research with a small but nifty set of tools.
The buoy will be the main way to progress throughout the game, where you’ll highlight noises being made that can be self-explanatory or worrying. In-between those journeys, you’ll find those audio origins, and you’ll also have the chance to scan the local aquatic life surrounding the area, which gives Beyond Blue a hefty exploration aspect. You won’t just be tasked to find one of each species, though. Instead, you’ll be told that there’s an entire group you can scan in various different areas, which dampens the mood somewhat.
While I’m totally fine with charting all different types of fish, jelly-based species or otherwise, the sheer numbers game you’ll have to face isn’t worth the rewards given. Models of the fish and their idle natures are your only payoff for scouring the ocean bed for these creatures. No matter how well-animated they can be, I’m not putting myself through several dives just to find the one solitary Comb Jelly that is stuck in a wall.
As a pure spectacle, Beyond Blue can stun you with the stakes at play. Despite being constantly attached to an earpiece with Andre and Irene, the vibe you feel in this ocean is almost heavenly. While there’s no Call of Duty-certified fish AI, you can almost convince yourself that you’re not intruding on these animals, and instead, you’re a ghost merely seeing what most can’t.
That being said, I highly recommend you turn off the game’s music. Not the small set of licensed tracks you can listen to outside of missions, because those are pretty fire, but the score that plays during dives. Aside from the pianos and synths whooshing across your ears repetitively, it fails to match the mood present, and instead replaces the true feelings one would attain from feeling weightless on the ocean floor.
After you turn off the soundtrack and let yourself become fully immersed in the experience, the ambient sound design takes a turn to try to blow your socks off, and it does. The whale clicks and creaking of the dolphins, the water rushing past your ears, the bubbling of hydrothermal vents when you get lower and lower into the ocean. It feels fantastic.
The swimming controls translate wonderfully to a controller, and the pacing of the character is just right. There’s no shortcut to travelling across these areas, which is a good choice because it allows you to be that much more attuned to the atmosphere. It’s ethereal, it feels like you’re embarking on an impossible mission, and it could be considered quite horrific.
As you get deeper into the mysteries of the story, you’ll find the game approaches a darker turn in what is arguably the games peak. You’re given no waypoint markers, and what follows is a haunting swim through hydrothermal vents and underwater volcanoes. Light fails to penetrate the floor, and your own flashlights can’t even give you a vague description of your surroundings. It’s all fairly spooky, to say the least.
All of this does culminate in a bit of a downer ending with no real bright side to it. A vague callback to a previous line of dialogue marks the end of your actual journey with these people, and it felt like a pointless endeavor. Despite some strong thematic associations, Beyond Blue‘s unnecessary narrative ends up flopping around like that fish at the end of Faith No More’s “Epic” video.
Woah, two FNM references in one review… and they’re both thematically relevant! Ahem, excuse me…
Does Beyond Blue retain the education cores that were present in E-Line Media’s previous projects? Yes, but only slightly. In gameplay, the guise of supposedly streaming your diving efforts live is peppered with dialogue that’s essentially watered-down explanations of their efforts. It works really well and helps open up the more complex definitions that’ll crop up over time.
Other than that, the Insight videos that made their mark in Never Alone return here, which also do their job, but in a Discovery Channel format. There are various topics and subjects shown, like the way Jellyfish age and the meanings behind whale songs, but they missed a crucial angle, that being climate change. At this point in Earth’s life, with more knowledge than ever before, we have a threat we need to combat, but there’s only one video on the danger of climate change and pollution?
You’ll see it in the game world as well, although it’s incredibly muted. Certain pieces of litter damaging the natural eco-structure and a failed deep-sea mining operation are some of the sights you’ll be treated to, but the characters don’t mention it. Why is that? It doesn’t matter whether you’d come off as preachy because this is their job, their passion, and their lifestyle that are being threatened, along with the fishes, so why don’t they bring these issues to light?
Unlike the gameplay’s consistent strength, a lot of these narrative beats and story elements are incredibly hit-’n-miss. When you’re not watching the Insight videos or listening to these characters detour the underwater odyssey, Beyond Blue is an experience worth having. After completing the campaign, you’re given free rein to dive into the regions shown throughout the campaign, without worrying about objectives or otherwise. It’s a nice touch, and it’s great fun, whether you’re crossing species off the arbitrary collectible list or just looking to vibe by yourself.
Despite not having the preachy angle that could’ve helped Beyond Blue‘s message come across to the average player, it’s still a nice time while it lasts. It’s great to see that E-Line Media is still on that hot streak of both teaching players about interesting subjects and putting them in a core that wants to satisfy as much as wants to educate. Beyond a small stipulation of being forced to withstand some unneeded narrative nonsense, Beyond Blue is a delightful little game.
This Review of Beyond Blue was based upon the Xbox One version of the game.
“Fighting a constant and bitter battle with our own overblown egos.”
At a time where nostalgia as a selling point is exercised more regularly than actual gameplay, it’s only fair to revisit what they intend to invoke for the player. Sure, DUSK might be the best thing since bread that’s been sliced for you by a harem of women who think “No really, Anon, you have such a great taste in arthouse films”, but what about the inspirations, like Quake or Half–Life, or DOOM? You gotta find out what it was that made those games click, and in the case of Ion Fury, these sentiments seemed like an after-thought in the name of fanboys worldwide.
This is the sophomore title from American-based studio Voidpoint, along with the long-stagnant corpse of 3D Realms, and my oh my, hasn’t this game had the most riveting of journeys? From its first inception to a throwback that the boomer-shooter crowd would revel in eternally, it all started with a lawsuit from boomer-metal kingpins Iron Maiden due to Ion Fury’s previous name, Ion Maiden. Content for a while, the game saw further controversy for a rather unfunny, but nonetheless harmless, joke, which saw a flare of outrage from people accusing the studio of homophobia. It could’ve potentially sunk the studio, but the flame that burns twice as bright, so on and so forth.
You play as Shelly I-Never-Caught-Her-Last-Name, fresh off her pixie performance in the 2016 release Bombshell and catching up on some R ‘n’ R in her local cyberpunk bar. However, her vacation is quickly cut short by the intrusion of Dr. Heskel and his ragtag but limitless army of cyborg cultists. With a shattered glass and a triple-barrel revolver, Shelly plans to take down Heskel for ruining some well-deserved beauty sleep, with the added bonus of taking down Heskel’s newly-formed cyber cult.
If certain names and clues are simply bouncing off your receptors, then let it be declared here: Ion Fury is more than just a tribute to a bygone age of pseudo-3D FPS malarkey. It sees itself as more of a logical next step, with Ken Silverman’s Build engine being pushed to the limits. What 3D Realms, Monolith, and Action Forms did in the past falters in paralyzed awe at what Voidpoint can do with 20 years of hindsight. Move over, Randy Pitchford; the true rectifier of outdated game design is here!
Be aghast at the graphical qualities! Look at these textures! Valiant voxels! Oh yeah, this is a true testament to what ‘90s hardware can do and has to be the first thing that you unavoidably talk about when it comes to Ion Fury. What Voidpoint has done with the Build engine is a marvel, a technical achievement in and of itself, and you do have to drink it in. The first level is the ‘90s FPS equivalent of Citizen Kane, and it’s nothing but breathtaking to see what’s in store.
Despite having a lot in common with Duke Nukem 3D, first and foremost, Ion Fury still eyes the other two parts of the Build engine Tri-Force, starting with Shadow Warrior‘s tight combat design, giving you a weapon roster that equals Lo Wang’s initial arsenal. The Loverboy is a weapon that easily could’ve become iconic if it was put into a ‘90s FPS, with the triple barrel design and a chamber that can fit 18 bullets at once. From there, you have the usual machine gun, shotgun, a slower-firing but more powerful machine gun, and explosives, which are admittedly too gimmicky.
Honestly, if Ion Fury can have a problem more objective than subjective, it’s that the arsenal focuses too much on having alt-fires that are too specific, with optimal situations being rare. The Loverboy’s “Deadeye” alt offers no clarification, the Ion Bow’s slow-building but devastating magazine emptying routine has too long of a buildup for a weightless payoff, or the Bowling Bombs in general. It all feels a bit too finicky, especially in tenser moments, and it doesn’t help that you have a roster of enemies that is honestly too aggressive to accommodate for such a skill-based set of weaponry.
The monster roster is where Ion Fury starts eyeing Blood from across the table; Hordes of cyber-cultists endlessly jabbering, and armed to the teeth. Sub-machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers and the Ion Bow, with the Ion Bow-wielding cultists being an especially devastating foe on higher difficulties. Their reaction times and telegraphing are mostly straight-forward, but to go back to the combat design quickly, absolutely none of the enemies show visual feedback, and despite a lot of the weapons being hitscanners, they still show bullet trails.
It sounds like a small quip, but it can honestly mess with your mind so much, especially when a lot of the roster shows no reaction to being shot at all. Ion Bow-wielding cultists were the worst for this, as you can never be sure that you’re able to stall them long enough with a quick shot for them not to charge their devastating bow up for a one-hit. You won’t see visual feedback from enemies until halfway in, and by then, you’re desensitized.
It’s hard to explain, but in the mission to show off that the Build engine is still a viable way to make a fast-paced FPS with game design that stands up there with the best of ’em, they’ve shown off a few inherent inadequacies that you simply can’t avoid. The apex of this lies in the verticality Ion Fury possesses in almost all of its arenas, which is frantic, wonderfully executed initially, and some of the best you’ll see in any shooter, period.
However, these are 2D sprites, and when Ion Fury decides to get tighter in sewer levels or throw THOSE FUCKING SPIDERS at you, trying to keep a grasp on the situation devolves into an oil slick of frustration. There’s also the flying drones that are one annoying sound effect away from the worst of Duke Nukem, the weird teleporting monsters reminiscent of Scourge Splitters; they don’t mesh well at all with this new limitless space available with 25 years worth of technology.
Nevertheless, Ion Fury‘s relentless combat tends to be more fun than frustrating. There’s an immediate sense of accomplishment following every firefight that pushes you to within a hair’s breadth of death. However, thanks to a terrifyingly long completion time, the level design has to constantly juggle different levels of the aforementioned verticality, looping, and intelligence, succeeding almost always.
Mind you, this level design knowledge tends to be expended on useless endeavors that almost always end up falling flat. The sewer sections are a good example of missing the mark by an inch rather than a mile, but it doesn’t matter whether you rent out John Romero to spice up your glorified map mod for the weekend, sewer sections cannot be executed properly. Despite that, the other sections of Ion Fury most would consider generic, such as the office sections, the usual city-burning-in-progress levels— They’re all phenomenal. They bring back good memories of loading up Hollywood Holocaust for the first time or getting to use the VK-12 shotgun for the first time in an 18+ reboot of Office Space.
Realistically, Ion Fury has a winning hand and should have cashed out to be a dead-set champion of FPS design, passion, and style. That isn’t the case, though, as over time, the game flounders and falters in an attempt to keep the player interested in the action. This is due to its arbitrary and arduous length, spanning over 7 chapters and multiple huge levels, with pacing thrown out of the window.
Really, the core design of Ion Fury is all over the place; it’s the equivalent of a narcoleptic cheetah. The action demands your attention at all times, but Voidpoint also stresses with the same urgency that secrets are wildly important, and the game can never manage the two correctly. You’re either running around like a headless chicken attempting precise surgery with buckshot, or you’re dry-humping several walls and vents attempting to find secret switches that can give you an iota of ammunition for the electronic hordes ahead.
Part of this comes down to enemy placement. A massive flaw arises from enemies spawning in without any audio or visual cues. Even then, it’s always a shot at the back that’ll get you. You can foresee and overcome projectiles coming towards you always, but Voidpoint believes that true skill arises from the ability to watch your own back after every firefight.
Is the game hard? Yeah, but only if you decide to play by the rules previous Build engine games set up, and that’s where the problem within Ion Fury lies. It’s not about providing you a loud and messy end to anyone who doesn’t quip Die Hard incessantly. No, it’s about being a dick in unforeseen ways because “a true FPS vet would’ve seen it coming.” Really though, nobody would, and as the game begins to fumble for time, and environments resemble Fallout 3 more than Ghost in The Shell, Ion Fury begins to plummet dramatically in the second half. The art design, the enemies, the battlegrounds, they all lose flavor and morph into an unintelligible blob of corridor fights and screeching from THOSE FUCKING SPIDERS.
Seriously, of all the enemies to accurately bellow their locations out to the player, it has to be these fucking knock-off Toy Story horrors? I state now, with no hesitation, and with the same fire I lay out before these mass of pulsating wires and still-warm blood, that nothing in any other video game, FPS or otherwise, will ever be as annoying to fight, as irritating to hear, or as incessantly pathetic as these useless fucking spiders which offer nothing to the fight other than demanding pin-point accuracy with an Xbox One controller. Yeah, try doing this while also being equipped with an auto-aim function that has the same narcoleptic properties as the games pacing.
Right, now that I got that out of my system, I can state with a much calmer demeanour that Ion Fury is still a decent game in its own rights, and that’s beyond the brilliant graphics. When it gets going, and you’re put into a room that only wants to see you fight for your life, the dip-divin’ you’ll be performing across wrecked cars and charred bodies is amongst some of the best FPS action you’ll ever see, period. I simply wish it wasn’t three or four hours of non-stop brilliance that should’ve ended 6 hours ago.
Honestly, if the technology was there in the late ‘90s and Half–Life got delayed by, like, six months or something, I can easily see Ion Fury joining the holy trinity of Build shooters and making an FPS equivalent of the Big 4 of Thrash Metal. Even now, that’s still the case, but in this analogy, they’d easily be Megadeth. Repeats upon repeats that only the devoted could withstand, as opposed to onlookers who realise they’ve done this same song ‘n dance for the past 20 years.
Honestly, if Dusk or DOOM (2016) set you off on a journey to find out what FPSes used to be before a time where democracy was apparently threatened by a government’s boredom, then Ion Fury is a logical next step. Don’t expect it to replace your favorite shooters, though, because honestly, after separating the Twins, no-one’s gonna blame you for thinking that’s it in terms of what the game has to offer.
This review of Ion Fury was based upon the Xbox One version.
Warborn: Variable Armour Command stimulates long-forgotten memories of a 90’s pop culture phenomena that swept over Japan and the Western Hemisphere. Giant mechanized robots fighting to the death has been a staple in the animated entertainment industry for decades, as the rise of Transformers, Voltron, and the legendary Gundam series captivated the minds of children and adults alike. Warborns’ salute to the fanbase is a refreshing experience that compels you to appreciate a genre that felt lost, but ultimately falls short as a holistic turn-based strategy game.
Warborn is a traditional turn-based tactics game by Raredrop Games, a small Indie team based out of the UK. Players command one of the four unique commanders in their struggle to defeat tyranny across the Auros system. Other features include a 40 mission campaign, an offline Skirmish mode, multiplayer support, and a limited map editor that could provide a lot of long term potential pending updates. Warborn brings just enough meat to the table to keep it interesting.
In 1956, Mitsuteru Yokoyama created the popular Manga Tetsujin 28, in which a young boy controls a giant robot. This would later be adapted into an anime known by the same name that featured the very first giant robots facing off against one another in combat. Yokoyama’s inspiration would go on to pave the way for the titular titles that we know and love today such as Mazinga Z, Super Sentai, and popular Gundam series that would become a staple mark for Japanese pop culture.
Warborn isn’t ashamed of who it is and for good reason. 90’s mecha anime is painted all over the place, with detailed unit visuals and character animations that even Yoshiyuki Tomino would be proud of. Units bear an uncanny resemblance to those in the Gundam series, and do a decent job of depicting what a modern mobile mech suit would look like. The graphical style chosen by Raredrop is simple by today’s standards, but works well when you complement it with a stellar soundtrack.
The campaign is broken up between four playable factions where you control a strike force of Variable Armour units tasked with completing their mission. The story was longer than expected for a title of this size, taking just over twenty hours to complete at a casual pace. Here lies the biggest problem – each mission’s objectives hardly vary from taking a specific outpost and finishing remaining units on the map. Sure, there are narrative situations spread throughout, but the only context given is through conversation during vague mission briefings resulting in slow character development. Luella, Vincent, Aurielle, and Izol all struggle to overcome personal conflict, but Warborn fails to provide players with any sense of empathy or consequence for your decisions.
Warborn compensates for its lack of story with fleshed-out gameplay, which was the highlight of my twenty-three-hour playthrough. Maps are set up of multiple hexagonal tiles littered with different types of terrain, each with their own defense ratings and effects. Movement is as simple as it gets, requiring you to select your units and move to a tile that is within your designated range. Once you reach your destination you will then have the option to use one of your Variable Armours attacks, given your opponent is within range. Certain unit types will additionally be able to capture resource outposts that will reward you with Strategic Points (SP), the currency you will use to purchase additional troops. Complemented with terrain movement effects and buffs from ally units, you are given situations that will test your skill and patience.
With a competent lineup of different variable armour and damage types, Warborn allows for fluid, strategic gameplay. Building a good ratio of snipers (Insights), medical units (Aegis), and basic foot soldiers will give you enough firepower and utility to handle most of the opponents you face. Even in moments when you feel outgunned and outmaneuvered, swift action from your commander will swing the battle in your favor. Super-Mech units are piloted by your faction commander and are equipped with special powers and bonuses that apply to your units. It’s all good and fun blasting three enemies down at once, but halfway through the game, it becomes a repetitive sequence of dominating the map with no real consequence. There is no doubt that enough pieces are here to allow for high-level strategic gameplay, but the AI won’t satisfy any itch of competition you might have.
Warborn supports multiplayer functionality that allows you to play as any of the four factions included in the main campaign. You can challenge your opponents to the pre-made selectable maps, or create custom maps through the map editor. My experience with the skirmish mode and map editor was brief, but it’s easy to see with the limited terrain and outposts options there could be some issues for long term applications without further updates.
Warborn: Variable Armour Command is a fleshed-out, turn-based tactics game that is limited by its overall simplicity. Varying unit types and commander traits offer an intriguing experience when utilized properly to subdue enemies on the map. Warborn has limited replayability in the campaign once completed, so any long term potential would rely on future updates to the multiplayer and customized map editor. This is a title that has all the workings of a popular turn-based strategy game, but ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided by the publisher
My friends call me Evo. No, I don’t drive one.
Founder of Sick Critic. Avid Gamer. Lover of beer – ask me to get one with you and we might become best friends.