Category Archives: Game Reviews
“The Front Line of This War Isn’t in the Dungeon, But Inside the Mind” – [Darkest Dungeon Early Access Review]
Darkest Dungeon is a roller coaster of chance induced emotion. This indie, rogue-lite, dungeon-crawling, RPG will subject your heroes, and you, to all manner of sanity testing dice rolls and mental ailments. Opening that chest might reveal gold and treasure, or it might give your hero tetanus.
As the player you arrive on the scene at your now decrepit family estate, and must attempt to see it restored to former glories by recruiting various adventurers and delving into various dungeons in search of gold and glory. Every excursion into the deep consists of beautifully simple, and painfully lethal walks down corridors where various loot, traps, and enemies await around every corner. You manage provision resources such as food, torches and tools to navigate the map and attempt to see your party to quests completion. In between dungeon runs you can upgrade your heroes and tend to their many maladies at your estate.
This simple formula is beautifully executed in Darkest Dungeon. The game sports grim-dark hand-drawn artwork, chilling music, bone crunching sound effects, and a infamous narrator who brings an Edgar Allen Poe-like atmosphere to each harrowing dungeon attempt.
I say attempt because complete and utter failure is quite common in this game. Fights are brutal and often unexpected, and a few unlucky sword swings or booby traps can send your heroes to the afterlife. To make matters worse (or better), each hero has a “stress” meter that is affected by everything from torchlight to how the battle is going at any given moment. Gain too much stress and your hero will either succumb to madness of various degrees, or perhaps gather the courage to stand resilient. And when they die. They die. There is no reviving them, there is no save-and-loading. They are gone, with all their experience, upgrades and skills. Forever.
But more heroes are always available to recruit and try again. And it is this tension, this fear of the unexpected, this ever gnawing possibility of losing a hero you’ve grown attached to -that makes Darkest Dungeon a phenomenal experience.
The phrase “Early Access” often makes me cringe as remember so many games that became scams, or failed to deliver, or got canceled. But Darkest Dungeon, though technically considered “Early”, is already full of hours of addictive game play, with a higher level of quality, play-ability, and style than most ‘finished’ titles. Do not be afraid to pick this one up, be only afraid of what horrors await you in the Dungeon.
*This First Look is as of the 1/22/2014 version of the alpha H1Z1.*
Chasing a man down the highway was more difficult than it sounds. Two men stood by a campfire outside a grocery store up ahead. The man I was chasing ran toward them, and I in hot pursuit. “He attacked me first!” I said to them as we ran passed. I lied. He hadn’t. Regardless, the two bystanders sprang into action. We quickly dispatched my ‘attacker’ with wooden clubs and took refuge inside the grocery.
“You need anything?” one of them asked. “Here take this,” said another, placing a bottle of water on the ground. All the sudden a cop car came cruising up to the grocery, red and blue lights flashed through the window. The three of us ducked behind the counter. I felt my stomach move into my throat. Because they weren’t cops. There were no cops.
Stories and experiences. That is the heart that drives survival games, unpredictable player interactions in a harsh environment. Despite some haranguing by game journo pros over the usual alpha launch woes, there is a lot to be excited about with Sony’s H1Z1. Fans of the zombie survival genre that exploded into popularity with the Arma “DayZ” mod will find a familiar landscape. Players spawn into the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse with little more than the shirt on their back and have run, forage, and fight to survive. As of the latest patch* the state of H1Z1 is a solid, playable foundation -and they’re just getting started. What has impressed me the most so far is that the Sony team behind the game have been relentlessly listening to player feedback and churning out huge improvements. Within the first week we’ve already seen several impressive patches addressing loot drops, zombie behaviors and tweaks to survival need rates based on player feedback.
Another plus is that the game is built from the ground up to be H1Z1, unlike its mod counterparts, and it shows. The UI is smoother and responsive, inventory management is better and animations look a step up from the competition. Wild animals like rabbit, deer, wolves and bears roam the wilderness and can be hunted by both living and undead alike. Even little things, like hitting a player or zombie with a melee item causing their head to move and turn realistically with each blow. The strange hit-boxes and homemade animations we’re all used to are thankfully not making an appearance this time around. Brain eaters actually have the numbers and speed to chase you, offering more than the glitchy window dressing they have in other games.
H1Z1 also boasts a fairly robust crafting and building system. Players can find materials -wood sticks, metal scraps, cloth – anything to build a variety of traps, tools and weapons. You can place spikes outside a log cabin or hide animal traps deep in the woods to catch dinner. Researching different combinations of materials allows the player to learn new crafting recipes which (on most servers) stay with you after death. This mechanic offers a nice meta-progress system to alleviate some of the pain from dying and having to start over. You died and lost all your gear, but at least you learned how to craft some new things for next time.
Overall, the game is still an alpha -and players who are not interested in an unfinished product should wait and watch carefully from the sidelines. Arrows and objects will sometimes levitate in mid air, NPC’s will sometimes take strange path routes. The VoIP is decent but a little “gainy”. There’s no grouping system for friends or reporting system for cheating players. This is still an alpha. That said, it’s an alpha that is already more polished and playable in a matter of days than similar titles that were released months or years ago. If you enjoy DayZ, Rust, WarZ, or Breaking Point, this is a game you won’t want to miss.
*Disclaimer: If you have not yet played The Walking Dead: Season 1, hold your hand out in front of your face, and proceed to slap yourself. Then head on over to Steam and play it right now. Do it, I’ll wait.
The Walking Dead: Season 2 by TellTale games will have you shouting STAY IN THE HOUSE CORRRAAL. For the most part, this is a sequel in top fighting shape, and a fantastic game that fans of its predecessor shouldn’t hesitate to grab. So let’s get into it.
Picking up presumably a year or two after the end of Season 1, you now play as a more mature, savvier Clementine in a dark, dangerous, world overrun with the living dead.
As opposed to a grown man, Clementine’s smaller stature provides a whole new set of challenges and this change of skills is utilized well throughout the story. Even early on, the game does a great job of letting the player wonder just where this adventure is headed and throws several curves just when you think you’ve figured it out. Meaningful player choices, usually in the form of dialogue options, are here in full force as well and constantly leave you wondering “Did I make the right choice?”
Game play mechanics have also seen some appreciated improvements over the first installment. Action sequences come in some more variety, with Clementine needing to duck, dodge and crawl her way out of zombie clutches. The player is also required to manually perform more tasks outside of the usual zombie attack sequences, including treating wounds and peeking around obstacles. The variety and frequency of these “playable” events provides a richer, more interactive feel that veterans of Season 1 should appreciate.
The pacing this go-around is also nicely done, with some wonderfully touching conversations, including a simple fireside chat that is perhaps some of the best written dialogue in the series. The calm moments in between the chaos feel fleshed out, and handled with the same care and attention as the action scenes.
For all its heart and amazing storytelling, the game does still stumble a few times. The cast seems more fluid this time around, so there wasn’t as much opportunity to feel connected to other characters as the first game. This meant that inevitable losses that come with a zombie apocalypse weren’t quite as powerful as they could have been, but its also worth acknowledging that Season 1 may have just simply set that bar so perfectly high. Also, while there is no shortage of ‘brains’ in this tale, some events didn’t quite hit the mark logically. One particular scene involved a seemingly life threatening injury that was essentially “walked off”.
Some of the conflict between characters also felt slightly less ‘organic’ than expected. Occasionally characters would seem to erupt not because circumstances warranted it, but because a fight needed to happen. Still, I suppose a zombie apocalypse is as good a reason as any to haul off and deck someone.
Overall, this is the adventure genre at its best. Despite some blemishes, this worthy sequel continues the epic story of the first and should be a must-play for anyone who enjoyed The Walking Dead: Season 1. The harrowing story, excellent dialogue, and powerful choices make this a game you don’t want to miss. Just make sure to have a box of tissues nearby.
*The Walking Dead: Season Two is comprised of 5 Episodes, and runs around 12-15 hours to complete.*
If you put a copy of Max Payne and a volume of Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings into a microwave, and set it on high, I imagine the result would be something like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This dark, tragic stealth/action take on Middle Earth puts players behind the controls of Talion, a ranger who has lost everything (including his life) to the Dark Lord. Thankfully, with the help of a mysterious Elven ghost, he manages to get a second chance and boy…does he want revenge.
The game is set in a modestly sized open world of Mordor where players can go around and activate different quests and events around the map, not unlike the Assassins Creed or Batman Arkham series’. But what the open world lacks in size, it makes up for in graphical onslaught. Even without the optional 6 GB bonus download for maximum settings (PC), the visuals are almost unbelievable. Rain falls, wind blows through your tattered cloak, and enemies are rendered so well that its almost hard to look at for any serious amount of time.
But impressive visuals aside, the game truly shines is in its unique “Nemesis” system. Various Orc Captains and War Chiefs want to play brutal politics ala Game of Thrones, and its up to you to be J.R.R. Martin. As the game progresses Orcs will fight, kill and betray each other in their attempts to climb the shadowy corporate ladder. The choices you make and enemies you kill determine who rises and falls. This system isn’t truly fleshed out however until part way through the adventure when you gain the ability to “Brand” or convert enemies into your loyal zombie-like followers. Brand an enemy captain of your choosing and assassinate his rivals to get your man into a seat of power. The Nemesis system also allows enemy captains to gain experience and level up from killing you, making each death heavy with consequences. Overall the Nemesis system works extremely well and is a delightfully fresh addition to the genre.
Combat is also a highlight of the game. Veterans of the Assassins Creed or Arkham games will quickly recognize the “ballet of death” style mechanics, allowing players to glide elegantly from kill to kill in jaw dropping fashion. The fighting is beautifully animated with acrobatic leaps over enemies and bone crunching executions. The brutal fighting feels generally responsive, fluid and satisfying as you dispatch enemies in one gruesome spectacle after another.
While the game has style in spades, it does suffer from some time tested woes. The revenge-fantasy premise of the story starts off like a shotgun blast to the heart. Within seconds I found myself immersed and sharing Talions sorrow and desire for revenge. This connection however loses steam as the story progresses to the point that you start wondering why we are killing our two-thousandth Orc again? The loss, and plot behind the game just wasn’t referenced enough throughout the story, and many of the main story quests had little or nothing to do with the task at hand.
Without delving too explicitly into spoilers, the game’s finale also failed to do justice to the wonderful fighting and stealth mechanics the game is built on. The final quests of the game required nothing of me, and consisted entirely of watching my minions vanquish my enemies and one quick time event. For a game that so excellently employed brutally kinetic combat and sometimes punishing difficulty, it includes none of that during the final act.
Overall, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a bit like a Michael Bay movie. The dazzling visuals and ruthless action make this a solid worthwhile play-through, despite the feeling that it could have been much more. While you eventually feel like you left the story somewhere along the way, you’ll be having too much fun too care.
The Legend of Korra is best summed up as the Avatar game we need, not the Avatar game we deserve. And by that I mean it’s better than all the other terrible pandering Avatar games, but it’s still pretty bad. This discounted beat-em-up attempts to bring players into the wonderful, rich, vibrant world of the Legend of Korra anime. And while it falls so short of greatness, there’s still some enjoyment for fans that are willing to endure a lot of pain to find it.
Taking place after the second season of the show, Korra finds herself mysteriously (and conveniently) stripped of all her bending powers at the hands of a strange old man who hit her with a blow dart. That is pretty much it. The old man doesn’t even have a name, a rhyme or a reason until just before the final boss fight. The only thing worse than a complete lack of plot when the amazing source material provides endless possibilities – is that the game attempts to sell you this one without any characters. Makko and Bolin only appear for the first three seconds of the game where they get knocked off the pro-bending arena stage and are never heard from again till the game’s final credits. Asami? Tenzin? Nope. Despite being based on a show largely centering on friendship and teamwork, Korra is at it alone this time for no reason other than missing more opportunities to give this game value.
After the initial introduction with no bending powers and major buyer’s-remorse-bending, Korra begins to regain her abilities. This is the game’s strong point, so if you are going to have any fun playing this game, this is it. The bending combat in Legend of Korra is wonderfully animated, and unlike previous Avatar titles, feels authentic. Rather than use generic martial arts with various color particles and call it “bending” as we’ve seen before, Legend of Korra succeeds in bringing the fluid varied combat of the show to life.
Lifting rocks from the ground and kicking them into foes, throwing fireballs or launching a volley of ice crystals brings back memories of the imaginative iconic combat of the show. Each of the four elements can be accessed on the fly, and each succeeds in bringing its own style, attacks, strengths and weaknesses to your arsenal. Nothing makes you feel more like the Avatar than standing atop a pillar of water and raining down pain on your enemies.
But even at it strong point the game falls short. To its credit, The Legend of Korra is surprisingly difficult for a game based on a Nickelodeon show, but this isn’t always achieved in a good way. Enemies chain stuns and knockdowns, do incredible damage and stop the action with constant quick time events to cause many deaths that are less than satisfying. Some of the later boss fights involve enemies so large they completely obstruct any view of your character or the attacks you’re supposed to be avoiding. Even the shows iconic Avatar-state where Korra connects with her past lives to deal out glowing justice, doesn’t make an appearance till the game’s final acts. Like everything else, so much potential, and so little execution.
And unfortunately after the cool factor of being the Avatar and thrill of bending, the fun runs out. Small linear stages of mildly enjoyable combat are broken up by a meaningless smartphone-quality rail running mini-game, as you ride Naga full speed into various objects with no context and motivation. I often found myself wondering why not just SLOW DOWN NAGA. We’re not being chased by anything. There was no reason for me to be dying -but by golly if we weren’t going to run through the empty lifeless streets of Republic City at full sprint.
Everything else in the game feels recycled, from the same 3 enemy Triad benders who appear countless times as re-colors of the same model, to the environments filled with identical buildings on every corner. So is it a good game in its own right? No. Is it completely void of any enjoyment or value? No. Fans of the show can drop $15 for a small glimpse at what it would be like to get a real Avatar game someday. But it’s not today. This may be the best Avatar game yet, but that’s not saying much. Even fans of the series should be ready to pay a hefty disappointment tax for the small payoffs of this game. Not a huge fan of the show? Run. Run far away.