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GoNNER 2 Review – Slippery People

GoNNER 2 Review – Slippery People

“Died to stay there, never have to leave there.”

 

It’s 2020, and it appears that roguelikes… well, they aren’t dying, but they sure seem like they’re slowing down. Once you’ve unsuccessfully tried to make Dark Souls into a roguelike — multiple times — the collective groans can be heard across the galaxy. Nevertheless, it’s time to come full circle, back to the “go big or go home” formula, and GoNNER 2 is indicative of that.

 

This is the latest game from Art in Heart and the sequel to the cutesy but brutal roguelike platformer, GoNNER. Once again published by the Devolver Digital of Devolver Digital, Raw Fury, the game follows the treks of the charismatic blob Ikk, who is seen doing dirty work for Death once more. Death’s home is being tormented by new threats, and she calls upon Ikk to clean up her house once more, a new cavalcade of visions awaiting them.

 

An in-game screenshot of GoNNER2, showcasing a burst of color coming from enemies exploding.

 

If you haven’t played the original GoNNER, it’s not exactly recommended for the sequel, unless you want to see the original vision. GoNNER 2 is more mechanically advanced, almost terrifyingly so, and everything, from the aesthetic to the music to the bosses, has seen tweaks and upgrades. On the surface, GoNNER 2 is almost thrice as big as its predecessor.

 

More guns! More heads! Fewer backpacks — no, wait. It’s all fairly obvious from when Ikk first plops into the grassy knoll of Death’s humble abode. The hub area is a perfect place to not only see what all your fancy pick-ups will be, but also get used to the new movement system in place. Should you be returning from Ikk’s original adventures, then this will certainly be a “ripping off the stabilizers” experience.

 

As opposed to the original’s limited left and right movement, with the wall-slidin’ and jumpin’ for good measure, GoNNER 2 has been given a tweak with directional aiming and dashing. It feels a lot more fluid, with gameplay and gunplay fusing brilliantly with it. Whereas the first GoNNER saw you outmatched in certain scenarios, the new movement and aiming system provide a fairer chance, with the aesthetic being the true challenge.

 

An in-game screenshot of GoNNER 2, showcasing Ikk sitting in the hub world next to upgrades.

 

Everything’s a lot fuzzier visually in GoNNER 2, and that’s a good thing. The tribal and plinky-plonky nature of the original GoNNER has now been replaced with warm hugs of bright blazes, smoother animations, and a beautiful display of combat. The game has kept its tempo-increasing combo system, with the upgrade being an immense flood of flat colors that radiate wonderfully as everything explodes. It’s DOOM: Eternal for people who take ambien.

 

It’s the collision of the gunplay and music which is GoNNER‘s unique trait, and it continues to be improved so much more in GoNNER 2. The new tracks from returning beat-maker Regular Graphics feel more claustrophobic, but the tracks don’t just increase in tempo as your combo gets higher. They form new landscapes of sound, the highlights being Pool Party, Blast from The Past, Tolu Mata, and The Granny Exorcism.

 

Still, when the ethereal bliss hits and the screen and sounds become a visual/auditory bliss, you wouldn’t be remiss to find yourself unable to follow the action at all. Aside from turning off the screen shake, there’s no way to tone down the action of GoNNER 2, which does get hectic, quite unbelievably so for a 2D platformer. In the long run, it might not be a deal breaker considering how difficult it is to actually initiate it, or rather, the difficulty in general will put you off.

 

An in-game screenshot of GoNNER 2, showcasing Ikk facing off against a giant sad-looking bird.

 

GoNNER 2 is hard, but it doesn’t come down to enemy placement or poor level design. It’s more that the movement is a wild beast that’s nearly impossible to tame. Ikk moves with such fluidity, and so do the enemies, but it’s the bosses and their weird animations that’ll throw you off. It’s like an accursed puppeteer is pulling their strings in the background, which considering the story, might not be that much of a stretch.

 

In order to get good at GoNNER 2, you need to be smart, not just a gung-ho warrior. As the combo climbs up and up and up, you also have to consider exactly where everything on the screen is and where it’s going to go. It’s a difficult thing to consider that mindset on its own as well, as GoNNER‘s other main gimmick is the limitation of only being able to see a few feet in front of Ikk.

 

Only enemies will be plastered on the screen in full force, but walls and platforms will require potentially foolish exploration, which usually ends in a reward. Placed around the levels are heads you can pop open for a trove of coins, combo multipliers, and upgrades. They’re fairly standard implementations, almost to the point of humdrum simplicity, but that’s to GoNNER‘s strengths more than anything else.

 

An in-game screenshot of GoNNER 2, showcasing Ikk dying in a blast of black and white

 

Take the customization available for Ikk, which slowly adds to your hub world with each successful find. The heads you can plop onto your adorable blue blob make such small tweaks to how Ikk performs in-game, but because of this focus on minimalism, it expands your play styles significantly. Even the guns, with range being the primary factor in their effectiveness, make minute changes become major.

 

It’s the “easy to learn, hard to master” principle, but on every factor. Art in Heart plays every card with such confidence, despite what some could consider alienation in its mechanics and design. The way the game simply stops in its tracks once you complete a run, the passive “You Died Again” when Ikk meets his fate, the cynical achievement descriptions — if you’ve played Art in Heart’s previous works, this is more of the same, but if you’re new, it’s a slight obstacle one would have to work around to be rewarded with comfort.

 

For example, the first GoNNER has your first boss fight end with an encounter with the now-infamous Sally the Whale, with her watching your every movement. Her small smile and chirpy image reactions were so disgustingly saccharine, they turned back around to heart-warming pleasure. GoNNER 2 not only replaces her presence, but explicitly states her departure from the series, with the new Sally somehow being more of a delight.

 

An in-game screenshot of GoNNER 2, showcasing a boss fight against Lady Death.

 

They speak in warbles and offer nothing but love. Flora and fauna sway in their presence, animals aren’t afraid of their slim build and lurching figure. They grab Ikk with an unintentionally scary grasp, and love. It throws you off at first, but the game design language in plain sight, and even then, it’s nice to be held. It’s nice to be loved. It’s nice to know that someone cares.

 

That’s where GoNNER 2 shines. It’s certainly a shorter game than its predecessor, with only 5 base worlds and 4 of them playable in a run, but it’s how Art in Heart communicates to the player within the sequel that makes it much more endearing. The gameplay is much tighter, even with an inherent lack in verticality, thanks to some varied arenas. Despite this shortened length, this is a fully-fledged sequel just as much as it is a personal statement.

 

GoNNER 2 is art, crafted with a perfect balance of commercialism and slight auteur genius. It speaks not just from the heart, but the hip as well, with cathartic gameplay and wholesome narrative beats. Even though it has objectively less to offer than its predecessor, it hits more than it misses, with the steps it takes being bold. It’s a warm hug and a punch to the gut, a curry with a kiss.

 

Bellissimo.

 

This review of GoNNER 2 was based upon the Xbox One version of the game.

"Died to stay there, never have to leave there."   It's 2020, and it appears that roguelikes... well, they aren't dying, but they sure seem like they're slowing down. Once you've unsuccessfully tried to make Dark Souls into a roguelike — multiple times — the collective groans can be heard across the galaxy. Nevertheless, it's time to come full circle, back to the "go big or go home" formula, and GoNNER 2 is indicative of that.   This is the latest game from Art in Heart and the sequel to the cutesy but brutal roguelike platformer, GoNNER. Once again published…

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This is The Zodiac Speaking Review – Colin Fry

This is The Zodiac Speaking Review – Colin Fry

**SPOILER/CONTENT ALERT! Plot elements of This is the Zodiac Speaking will be discussed here for the sake of critique. It also includes a description of the death of a young girl. If either of these factors are troubling, then please tread carefully while reading.**

 

“Come kill me, I seem so brittle.”

 

In 2006, a UK TV show called Psychic Private Eyes followed the adventures of three of the UK’s best psychics and ghost whisperers, deducing crimes by talking to the dead. Beyond a general lack of good intentions, the most horrific episode involved the trio attempting to solve the murder of a young girl. This results in the deduction that her remains were buried underneath another grave in an actual graveyard, with pesky human rights laws getting in the way of their vigilante work.

 

My point is that the art of being a medium, or believing to have some spiritual connection to the dead, is dubious at best and hideously offensive at worst. There’s a vulnerability to the bereaved that some find easy to manipulate, whether it be for the endgame of fame, power, or sick egotistical pleasure. It’s something that resonates in some capacity to a playthrough of This is the Zodiac Speaking, and whether that’s for better or worse? We’ll see.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing a writers award.

 

This is the sophomore release from Polish developer Punch Punk Games, a video game rendition that depicts the murders of the Zodiac Killer. We play as Robert Hartnell, a potential nod to famous Zodiac obsessive Robert Graysmith, depicted by Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2007 film Zodiac. Mr. Hartnell attaches himself to the case in a rather unhealthy fashion, culminating in dream therapy sessions which see him not solving the mystery, but rather… I don’t know.

 

There’s an odd agency to This is the Zodiac Speaking, but it fluctuates and dissipates over time. The actual timeline of events regarding Robert’s story are unclear, and the game never explicitly states the impact he has on the chain of events. Given the actual historical context of the Zodiac Killer there’s a lot of fiction you could create, and This is the Zodiac Speaking certainly tries, but in a completely different direction than you’d expect.

 

For example there’s the murder of one Cheri Bates, which has been disputed profusely as a Zodiac killing. This is the first case Mr. Hartnell latches himself onto, which partially sets off a deep dive not just into Robert’s consciousness, but the work of the Zodiac Killer themselves. Why? Well, it’s complicated when it comes to the narrative, but in gameplay it’s a rather mundane affair.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing a car park dimly lit.

 

This is the Zodiac Speaking not only has you inspecting crime scenes, but also locations where the Zodiac Killer is setting up for the main event. These locations are usually constructed from witness testimonials, with the dream therapist initiating the scene for you. From there, you begin to piece together the actions of the Zodiac Killer, but only one thing matters.

 

Despite what the game may imply, there’s no real detective work going on. Clues are merely optional choices for you to find, and the real puzzle is setting up the chronology of what happened when and where. It’s always four specific events, and the game never punishes you for being sloppy, unless you count an arbitrary threat as a punishment.

 

During these dream sequences, a manifestation of the Zodiac Killer will stalk the maps looking for you. If he catches you, you’re brown bread and you have to start over, so you have to deduce the crime somewhere safe and find a part of his infamous cipher before you can leave safely. It’s an odd execution which ultimately doesn’t pay off due to how half-hearted the inclusion is.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing a surreal vision of the Zodiac Killer.

 

The whole “you die in your dreams, you die for real” presentation isn’t the bad part; it’s the fact that there’s so little gameplay connected to it. There’s no hiding mechanics or even hiding spots, you can only crouch or sprint for a short time. While the Zodiac Killer isn’t frustrating to play against, it’s the lack of any mechanics that makes it tedious.

 

A quick side note: if you do end up playing This is the Zodiac Speaking on console, be warned that the game has no stick dead-zones. If your controller suffers from even the slightest amount of drift, then be prepared to drift right into the Zodiac Killer’s view. It’s a negligible albeit annoying problem the gameplay has, but this can be removed via a “story mode” that gets rid of the Zodiac Killer in-game.

 

As is the case with a lot of these narrative-heavy titles with an obligatory threat, it’s a welcome addition. However, this suffers from the same problems that SOMA‘s “No Monster” difficulty mode has, in which the threat being removed also removes everything the game has, beyond its writing. Does This is the Zodiac Speaking have more than SOMA without the threat? Yes, but not by much.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing an interaction between two phantoms.

 

Outside of the dream sequences, you’ll also trawl around Robert’s house, watching in vain as it accumulates more rubbish blocking doorways. It’s a sign symbolizing his obsession with a case he has no right to be obsessed in, but it’s not smartly done, it happens off-screen with no build-up or commentary. You’re able to inspect all of these discarded cans, empty cigarette packets, and unfinished TV dinners in their low-poly glory, but there’s no need, as no new info is ever retained.

 

A good example of this would be when Robert attempts to piece together the events of the real-life murder and attempted murder of Cecilia Ann Shepard and Bryan Calvin Hartnell, respectively. Robert knows the dates, he has the information not just in the level, but it’s been in his journal, yet it feels more like you have to crowbar your way into a solution.

 

Even if staring at a packet of Rothmans really hard was the answer to finding out whether it was really Arthur Leigh Allen committing the murders, one deduces it’s not exactly a selfless endeavor. This is more of a character study regarding Robert, and it’s a pretty awful one at that, once again lacking agency and any sort of arc beyond worrying obsession. He speaks with a repetitious tone, failing to show any emotion, even as he describes gruesome details and visions of bodies being brutalized.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing the player character getting up close with the Zodiac Killer

 

It all feels tasteless. Robert supposedly helps his victims before they die, leaving him with a complex that matters ultimately to him and him alone. Soon, it becomes less about the obtuse mystery of the Zodiac and how it haunts Robert, and more about Robert’s past which you shouldn’t care about. Robert is a blank slate, a one-note character with no traits, no quirks, and no motivation beyond what the game promises he has somewhere.

 

Part of the problem comes down to the lack of NPCs. Aside from the dream therapist lazily enabling Robert’s dangerous mental tendencies, no one is there to comment on Robert’s actions, only Robert himself. He repeats constantly that he’s haunted by the Zodiac, haunted by the victims, all the while still trying to detour the game’s narrative to his own childhood suffering. It reeks of both self-importance and lethargic writing.

 

The only person who ever comments on just how lost Robert is is his ex-girlfriend, Monica, but she’s out of the picture before he even starts wrecking his house. Everything, from the way Robert repeats several times his suffering and results to the way the story suddenly departs from the initial mystery, lacks focus. This point is amplified tenfold with the aesthetic, but in a good way.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing a mannequin missing several body parts.

 

This is the Zodiac Speaking sets up an uncomfortable visual style that makes a lot of sense, given the mystery of the game’s villain. No one has a face, just ‘60s hairstyles and concave features where their eyes should be. Every building beyond Robert’s house is both defined and undefined, adding to the dreamscape that Robert sets himself up in each session. It definitely helps, more so than the completely unnecessary film grain added to each dream sequence that cannot be turned off.

 

Before each level starts you’re treated to an overview of the level, and it’s usually awash in one main color. Suddenly, the environment is covered in a thick fog, and a grotesque layer of film grain removes a good chunk of the surreal. The fog hiding a potential draw distance setback is fine but the film grain is a touch too far, removing a lot of the allure the art style has. That being said, even with these setbacks, the game has some problematic performance issues.

 

The lack of dead zones for the joysticks is one thing, but the game’s performance is an obstacle more intrusive than that. Screen-tearing, frame-rate drops, dialogue skipping— This is the Zodiac Speaking has some fairly unavoidable problems when it comes to actually playing it. Punch Punk has addressed a lot of the problems the game has with a patch coming soon, but it should be stated that problems do exist at time of writing.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is The Zodiac Speaking, showcasing the player character hiding from the Zodiac Killer.

 

One struggles to find a point in This is the Zodiac Speaking. One of America’s greatest mysteries is derailed by a need to showcase a boring character, with a twist you won’t see coming due to how nonsensical it is. This is a game marred by tastelessness, unafraid to exploit a decades-old mystery to make no points, and aims to confuse under the guise of “surreal horror”.

 

Still, none of this matters. Again, this isn’t about the Zodiac Killer, this is about a man who’s pissed off with his ex-girlfriend and uses his obsession to either justify her murder or attempt to reconnect with her. The primer for this decision depends entirely on your preference in photos, with the emotional climax beforehand being the death of Robert’s best friend, a young black girl named Goose, by the hand of Robert’s father.

 

It’s a bleak scene. It’s a nihilistic scene. It’s… an offensive scene, one made up completely by the writers and that fails to be a competent catalyst for any decision you make afterwards. It’s grasping at straws for sympathy, and it’s even more sickening to consider it when the game was already trying to do that, implying domestic violence between Robert’s parents.

 

An in-game screenshot of This is the Zodiac Speaking, showcasing a wall of the Zodiac's cipher.

 

This is a game about the Zodiac Killer. This isn’t a game about the Zodiac Killer. This is a detective game. This isn’t a detective game. This is a true story. This isn’t even a true story. Robert Hartnell does not exist, and neither do his parents. This is a game excavating sadness from a place it shouldn’t. Goose didn’t have to die. There was no reason for Goose to die. Goose died because the game wants it, not the world. A child died for the sake of a child dying.

 

What could’ve been an interesting look into the theories surrounding the Zodiac Killer a la Room 237, the game instead goes down an exploitative route, all to justify the existence of a faceless man. A man who doesn’t deserve happiness. A man who doesn’t exist.

 

Is that the point? Whether it is or not, it doesn’t deserve to have a point.

 

This review of This is The Zodiac Speaking was based upon the Xbox One version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.

**SPOILER/CONTENT ALERT! Plot elements of This is the Zodiac Speaking will be discussed here for the sake of critique. It also includes a description of the death of a young girl. If either of these factors are troubling, then please tread carefully while reading.**   "Come kill me, I seem so brittle."   In 2006, a UK TV show called Psychic Private Eyes followed the adventures of three of the UK's best psychics and ghost whisperers, deducing crimes by talking to the dead. Beyond a general lack of good intentions, the most horrific episode involved the trio attempting to solve…

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GORSD Review – Garth Offered Red Slippers, Dope

GORSD Review – Garth Offered Red Slippers, Dope

“I hate that clown, but not as much as Mr. Far. I think I’ll go smoke a cigar.”

 

When it comes to learning a new skill, being thrown into the deep end is probably not the best strategy, especially if it involves teaching kids how to swim. A lack of context or a rudimentary understanding of the task at hand isn’t the best place to start, but when it’s an act of deliberation? Who knows, maybe it’s knowledge to a higher power, which is certainly what something like GORSD implies.

 

This is the latest title from Singapore studio Springloaded, a small team whose small catalog covers a lot of bases already. Whether it’s a casual auto-clicker, chiptune rhythm-action, or an RTS/Tower Defense-hybrid, you certainly can’t accuse Springloaded for sticking to one comfort zone. That thought goes tenfold when you see something like GORSD, and almost immediately, you’ll see what I mean.

 

An in-game screenshot of GORSD, showcasing three of the spherical dragons sticking their tongues out.

 

You play as a rather charming, little, squid-like creature who awakens in a forest that doesn’t seem hostile at first. Soon after, you’re subjected to an indecipherable language before the serene nature is immediately interrupted by abrasive gods taking the form of spherically-lined dragons with twisted faces. It’s quite clear they’re not impressed by your presence, and you’re going to have to work to either co-exist or defeat them.

 

Immediately, the game’s quite reminiscent of Anodyne; Analgesic’s dreamscape looks into a young being’s psyche, but the comparisons go beyond a similar aesthetic. That calming score that seems to pleasantly overthrow the atmosphere, the way your character is spoken to in potentially deserving condescension. It’s a coincidence, a stretch of the imagination, which is everything this game aspires to be.

 

There’s certainly a vibe that GORSD immediately wants to jump for, and that’s “weird”. With the spherical dragons screaming at you, the visual design being blared at full volume, and how the game plays— It’s clear that they’re trying to tickle the synapse we possess that powers curiosity. Whether it’s ParanoiascapeTamashii, or even the classic LSD Dream Emulator, there’s a market for oddities, especially if they’re trying on all fronts like GORSD is.

 

An in-game screenshot of GORSD, showcasing a upward spiral lined with red faces.

 

Does it extend past gameplay? Well, kind of. It’s a mixture of the Light-Cycle game from Tron, and the general objective of Splatoon. You and your adversaries are placed onto a lined grid, with the goal being to color in the entirety of the level with your color only. If the entire level is your color? You win, and curry more favor with these malevolent gods!

 

It’s not all Jeff Bridges meets schoolgirl squids, however, as trapping someone in your line of color doesn’t destroy them. You’re given a bullet you can fire only once until it hits an objective, whether it’s an enemy or a far-away piece of uncolored land you can’t reach. This bullet can also go around corners, should you press the direction of the upcoming corner as you fire it, which sounds strategic, but in execution, falls flat.

 

Considering this all relates to right angles and squares within squares, the arena design tends to become more and more complicated, with tactics taking a backseat to luck. Sometimes, the predictive nature of the bullet will work in your favor, but a lot of the time, you’re at the mercy of a bullet that won’t listen to you. In fact, if you don’t pay attention, it can also kill you, which is another decision that adds a degree of unnecessary challenge.

 

An in-game screenshot of GORSD, showcasing gameplay between four different colors.

 

Unless you hold a specific button before you’re about to be hit by your own bullet, you won’t be able to recollect and reuse it, instead committing to a respawn. This wouldn’t be an issue if, say, all bullets fired had their team colors on them, instead of white crosses that blaze across the map. It also wouldn’t be an issue if the game speed wasn’t so lightning fast.

 

This might be more of a preference than an objective issue, but the game speed of GORSD is insanely quick. The characters and their projectiles dart around the arena with phenomenal speed, and even on early arenas, you tend to find yourself catching your bullet the wrong way. Even if the game speed was tweaked just slightly, you also have the issue of playing a game that’s zoomed out way too far.

 

What is this, a battlefield for ants? The colors are even harder to determine from this angle as well, with your only insight being a vague colored outline above your character. Yes, you can visibly see the trail your squid will make, but the bullets also make trails, and the AI isn’t exactly blessed with tactics, spamming bullets whenever they can. That being said, it’s the game mode without the AI that shines the best.

 

An in-game screenshot of GORSD, showcasing dialogue from the dragon Probus.

 

Time Puzzles are dripping in fun and intuitive ways to solve them, even when Springloaded takes a Jackson Pollack approach to how the string of straight lines play out. There is a method to the madness, however, and the mere act of using the bullet to color off the beaten path is smart — Smarter here than it is in a competitive environment, at least.

 

GORSD doesn’t make sense, both in how it approaches its own gameplay, and in general. The Adventure mode promises a seven-hour stroll through some of its most meticulous maps, but that’s only if you decide to let the game torture you with egregious spawn times. Should you be humiliated enough to tune down the difficulty, the journey is sliced in half, maybe even down to two hours. 

 

An in-game screenshot of GORSD, showcasing indecipherable dialogue from the ringleader dragon.

 

After the adventure, you only have more AI fights to follow, in repetitive endless modes involving the same AI. It’s only now that you realize how boring a lot of GORSD is; as unflinching as the pacing may be, it still lacks that certain punch, that variety in how you approach a match, beyond randomly spamming bullets. It seems to talk a big game about strategy, but that strategy simply isn’t there.

 

At its core, GORSD isn’t bad, there’s no inherent traits that specifically mark it down, but it’s the way Springloaded executed how it would be a multiplayer experience that falls flat. What should be an alluring jaunt through aesthetically foreign lands, can’t keep up with its own odd presentation to be consistently interesting. It doesn’t matter how innovative this dish may be, the plate it’s on doesn’t look clean.

 

This review of GORSD was based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.

Bounty Battle Review – Ultra Mash Brothaz

Bounty Battle Review – Ultra Mash Brothaz

“I was walking on the ground, I didn’t make a sound. Then, I turned around, and I saw a clown.”

 

When it comes to fighting games, it’s always the indie scene that comes through with something truly enthralling to watch unfold. The janky physics-based action of Nidhogg 2, the pocket-sized fun of Rivals of Aether, or the infamous Skullgirls; there’s something about a mind free of restraints that brings wonderful energy to the screen. Better yet, why not go full M.U.G.E.N on a project and make an indie-game spectacle not unlike Super Smash Bros? Thank Christ for Bounty Battle, then.

 

This is the debut game from French studio Dark Screen Games, headed by one François von Orelli. Other information about the studio and its history is hard to come by, save for their upcoming game, Rise, and the publisher, Merge Games, who’re a perfect fit. Despite none of their indie game offerings showing up in Bounty Battle, it’s the eye they have in regards to their publishing catalog that holds promise.

 

An in-game screenshot of Bounty Battle, showcasing a versus screen of Owlboy vs the protagonist of Dead Cells

 

There’s no real plot, beyond a disruption in time allowing all of these indie game characters to fight against each other, and the roster is quite staggering. You’ve got Dead Cells, Flinthook, Darkest Dungeon, Guacamelee! — they even got Pankapu! It’s a 2010s dream come true, Superman vs Goku on the smaller screen! So if you’re wondering how powerful Fish from Nuclear Throne is against The Penitent One from Blasphemous, now’s your chance.

 

If there’s one thing that can be immediately applauded, it’s a diverse roster filled with a lot of charm, unique natures, and an eye for their abilities. Whether it’s Guacamelee!‘s Juan being able to throw further or Flinthook‘s Captain Flinthook using his… uhh… Flinthook to grapple onto enemies and into the fray, it’s all attention to detail. It makes you excited to see what kind of crazy antics one can get up to.

 

As stated above, the angle Dark Screen is going for with Bounty Battle is the ever-popular Super Smash Bros. format: small arenas, no barriers protecting the edges, up to 4 players, and a few trinkets added that can help turn the tide of battle. More arena brawler than one-on-one, the game has a fairly hefty tutorial attached to it to make sure you know how it is.

 

An in-game screenshot of Bounty Battle, showcasing the character select screen.

 

It’s your standard affair, what with the light attack, heavy attack, slam attack, block, grab, and ultimates. Bounty Battle‘s main gimmicks seem to be related to, well, Bounties, a system that rewards players for unique combos or eliminating the best player in the arena. These Bounty points can be used to buy support characters that can… I don’t know, actually.

 

In theory, it sounds like a good idea, but it seems to mostly relate to eliminating the MVP, and with the washed-out colors, that’s an issue. A lot of the guest characters from other franchises have been redrawn in order to accommodate with aesthetic Bounty Battle provides, but they’ve been drawn to look the same. The arenas are also awash in darkness, so trying to pay attention to what’s actually happening on the screen becomes a mess.

 

It doesn’t help that the arenas lack bite or any sort of variety. Beyond a wallpaper change relating to some of the indie games who have characters featured, almost none of these arenas have any sort of environmental punch. It all takes place on one straight line, you can’t force a tighter fight on a tighter space, the only way you can take a fight is all the way to the right or all the way to the left.

 

An in-game screenshot of Bounty Battle, showcasing a fight between Guacamelee!'s Juan, Dead Cells' protagonist, and Nuclear Throne's Fish.

 

Thankfully, there is small respite in the fact that sticking to ranged attacks is a strategy you can pick. You won’t feel good for doing it, but if you play with more than two fighters on the screen, you have two choices: strategic placement of your character and dodging while they attempt to come closer, or simply button mashing in the middle of the cartoon dust cloud.

 

It seems like airplay is the name of the game here, since a lot of the specific combos and attacks benefit a more aerial approach. It’s not something you can cheap out either, as air-juggling isn’t viable, and A.I. pays a fair amount of attention as to how everyone plays at all times. It’s fairly responsive, quick to spot flaws in approaches, and in the “Tournament” mode, it shows no mercy.

 

Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, don’t even attempt Tournament mode. Almost immediately, the game spares no punches on your beginner ass and will instantly task you with specific challenges. Very Hard mode fights, reaching a set amount of  eliminations via throw-out, 1v1 fights with higher health and/or damage scaling… and there’s 150 of these challenges! five for each character!

 

An in-game screenshot of Bounty Battle, showcasing a fight between Owlboy, and Captain Flinthook.

 

It’s quite a meaty treat to tuck into, especially since it actively works to cover all of the bases as frequently and as much as possible. The only issue one could surmise from the entire affair is a lack of forgiveness for mistakes. All 30 sets of 150 challenges have 5 skins you can unlock for each character, but they only unlock if you complete a challenge without losing a life. When it comes to challenges like the set amount of eliminations, the game employs a horde strategy, which enforces that cartoon dust cloud inevitably to a point of frustration.

 

As for other features Bounty Battle has, it’s all glorified training, with the only other option being a straight-up Versus mode that allows for up to four players. It’s a fair amount of preparation for when the current global pandemic ends, since at time of writing, the game hosts no online capabilities, only local. While one cannot socially distance on a couch, this would be a good time for siblings, if it wasn’t the awful performance this game possesses.

 

All of this praise one could latch onto Bounty Battle is squandered, since every match lags, freezes, and stutters the second a single hit is registered. Every time a character runs out of life, the game stops for a full second as it attempts to register what exactly just happened, and it is absolute hell to play, for the most part. Does this make the game unplayable? Yes and no.

 

An in-game screenshot of Bounty Battle, showcasing a fight involving the protagonist from Death's Gambit.

 

When Bounty Battle starts acting up and freezing non-stop, you could always just start button-mashing until the game decides it wants to be your friend again. This isn’t exactly in the spirit, though, is it? When you also take into account just how frequently the game decides to freeze and lock up, you only end up with a game with all of its potential lost.

 

While a lack of online multiplayer knocks the allure of Bounty Battle down a few pegs, it’s the technical shortcoming that kneecap the entire charade. It lacks tight design beyond smart A.I., it lacks features beyond playing with bots, lacks levels with bite, and feels unfinished, both in what it wants to be and how it should be. Despite a unique roster, it has no unique impact.

 

This Review of Bounty Battle was based upon the Xbox One version. A review code was provided for this purpose.

 

"I was walking on the ground, I didn't make a sound. Then, I turned around, and I saw a clown."   When it comes to fighting games, it's always the indie scene that comes through with something truly enthralling to watch unfold. The janky physics-based action of Nidhogg 2, the pocket-sized fun of Rivals of Aether, or the infamous Skullgirls; there's something about a mind free of restraints that brings wonderful energy to the screen. Better yet, why not go full M.U.G.E.N on a project and make an indie-game spectacle not unlike Super Smash Bros? Thank Christ for Bounty Battle,…

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Dread Nautical Review – The Haunting of Horatio Hornblower

Dread Nautical Review – The Haunting of Horatio Hornblower

“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.

 

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a lineup of random monsters ready to attack your crew.

 

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.

 

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a boss enemy surrounded by its own group of monsters.

 

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.

 

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a massive horde of enemies ready to attack the player.

 

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.

 

A screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing the party characters inspecting a wrecked room.

 

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.

 

An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing the player's characters surrounded by monsters.

 

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.

 

A screenshot of the Battle Mode in Dread Nautical, showcasing a fight taking place in a dimly lit room.

 

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.

 

An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a battle taking place in a corrupted hall.

 

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.

 

An in-game screenshot of Dread Nautical, showcasing a claustrophobic battle taking place in a green-lit room.

 

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.

"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…

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Beyond Blue Review – Underwater Love

Beyond Blue Review – Underwater Love

“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.

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing the character Mirai staring out into the water.

 

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.

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing a orb made of fish, in what is known as a "bait ball".

 

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.

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing two drones with flashlights on the ocean floor.

 

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.

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing a solitary whale barely lit by sunlight.

 

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.

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing an intimidating fish barely bathed in red light.

 

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…

 

An in-engine screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing a single fish being high-lighted in UV light.

 

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?

 

An in-game screenshot of Beyond Blue, showcasing Mirai swimming along the ocean floor.

 

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. 

"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…

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