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Hitman 3 Review — Perfect Execution

Since it rebooted its Hitman franchise in 2016, IO Interactive has been putting on a level design masterclass. Each of the missions the developer rolled out in what it calls its World of Assassination series has contained a huge, intricate collection of scripted and free-form systems that create harrowing moments, presented elaborate puzzles to solve, and allowed the player to orchestrate ludicrous and often hilarious situations. Levels are designed to be played over and over so you can explore, understand, and eventually master all their moving parts, and it’s impossible to see everything one has to offer in a single playthrough (or in most cases, even two or three).

At first blush, Hitman 3 appears to be more of the same. It makes no drastic changes to the underlying formula, instead adding a few graphical upgrades and quality-of-life improvements to the existing Hitman framework. But Hitman 3 improves on the World of Assassination through consistently excellent level design–which is saying something, given how strong all the previous missions are. Hitman 3 is full of fun and fascinating ideas, many of which play with the concepts underpinning the last four years of Hitman levels.

Presumably knowing that players have spent all sorts of time mastering its many settings and systems, IO throws in some brilliant curve balls that require you to use your assassin skills and knowledge in clever, challenging new ways.

In Hitman 3, all the stealth mechanics, the ways you can interact with the world, and enemy AI remain the same as in the past. That’s essential to how Hitman works, however–your knowledge and understanding of the game’s underlying systems are what make it possible to replay levels again and again to exploit their intricacies in different ways. Rather than feel dated, Hitman 3 just highlights how satisfying it can be to understand how all these moving pieces work together. There aren’t any major mechanical additions to the game’s construction, but seeing how it all harmonizes is as impressive today as it was when the first entry in the World of Assassination trilogy launched in 2016.

In each of the game’s locations, your goal is to find a way to eliminate your assassination targets and then escape the level without being found out. You do that largely by knocking out enemies, hiding their bodies, and taking their clothes. Some areas are restricted based on what you’re wearing, and some enemies can still see through your disguises, requiring you to carefully avoid them. Agent 47 has the benefit of Instinct, a vision mode that lets him intuit where enemies are through walls and which highlights interactive items in the environment.

As you sneak around each level, your goal is to try to uncover information that will help you get close to your targets and eliminate them. Those assassinations can be accomplished in simple ways, such as shooting them or strangling them with a garrote, or more complex ones like exposing an electrical wire in a puddle and then turning on a nearby switch to electrocute your prey. The stealthier (and less deadly to non-targets) you are, the better your score at the end of a level, and each stage is full of challenges to complete that encourage you to find weird and creative ways to take out your mark, without anyone knowing you were ever there. The more challenges you complete, the more you “master” a level, which unlocks additional starting locations and loadout options to change the experience even more.

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Part of what sets Hitman 3’s levels apart from those of Hitman 1 and 2 is how they fit into the overall story that IO has been telling in this series. In the past, each of Hitman’s levels has functioned as a mostly standalone chapter in the tale of titular assassin Agent 47. You’d go into a location with one or more targets, and each mission had a bit of story about the people you were after, which doubled as an opportunity to get close to them.

But those targets were usually somewhat tangentially related to what was going on in the unfolding story of Agent 47 and his handler, Diana Burnwood. Across Hitman 1 and 2, the pair slowly realized that they were unwitting participants in a war between the Shadow Client, a guy who was carefully manipulating them through their assassination contracts, and Providence, an Illuminati-like organization of world-controlling super-rich people. In Hitman 3, Agent 47 and Burnwood are fully involved in the battle against Providence after the events of Hitman 2, and that larger story is finally at the forefront of everything that’s going on.

That means that missions feel like they have a bigger impact and targets are more interesting and make more sense. The characters you eliminate have consequences for the story, and those consequences lead to imaginative takes on the series formula as 47’s enemies try to fight back against him. After developing a brilliant mold for Hitman missions, where you’re dropped into an often-huge area and have to learn to understand how it works to accomplish your goals, IO breaks that mold again and again to create fun, memorable, inventive assassination experiences.

Much has already been made of the excellent second mission, set in Dartmoor, England, where you’re trying to assassinate a target in the middle of what is essentially a riff on the movie Knives Out or any number of Agatha Christie stories. You’re planning a murder of your own, but one has just taken place in the huge mansion where your target is staying, and you can even take on the role of private investigator and search for clues to figure out whodunit. It feels like taking a brief vacation in the middle of Hitman 3 to play another game, but the brilliance of the murder mystery’s addition is that the whole time you’re solving it, you’re thinking about how you can use the information you learn to your advantage to finish your assassination. Your inquiry might let you expose the murderer, or frame someone else for the crime, or give you ammunition for a blackmail threat, depending on how much you explore. It’s a three-dimensional chess game where you’re not only putting the clues together to close the case, but also thinking ahead to what opportunities your actions might offer you, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal expansion of how Hitman’s intricate levels already work.

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Later missions also put intelligent spins on the series framework. Just about every Hitman mission up to now has given you a briefing about your targets and lets you plan your starting point and weapon loadout–so one mission robs you of all your preparatory information, dropping you into an unfamiliar location and forcing you to wing it, locating your targets and learning what you can about them on the fly. Another mission takes the things that work about Hitman–sneaking past guards, donning disguises, using the environment to distract or pacify enemies–and shrinks the scope from its normally expansive settings to a tight, crowded train, so that every move and decision you make has to be quick and calculated. There’s a mission that purposely leaves you on the back foot at one point when an alarm is activated, forcing you to sneak or fight your way to safety as guards search for you.

None of Hitman 3’s missions change how you’ve played these games since 2016. They don’t throw new mechanics at you (other than a camera that can scan some objects and persistent shortcuts that give you new opportunities for assassinations) or require you to learn to deal with new enemy behaviors. Instead, Hitman 3 finds new ways to challenge seasoned assassins purely through excellent design. You’ve honed your assassination skills–but can you solve a mystery? Can you avoid other hidden, disguised assassins hunting you? Can you sneak out of a locked-down facility full of soldiers who know you’re there? It’s a fitting testament to how strong the World of Assassination games have been all along that IO can make Hitman 3 feel fresh and new simply by finding creative new ways to take advantage of the series’ design foundations.

The drawback of Hitman 3 is that, while the missions often feel even more ambitious in intricacy than those of the past, the game itself is scaled down somewhat as an overall package. Gone are some additions that appeared in Hitman 2, including the competitive Ghost mode and cooperative Sniper Assassin missions (the Sniper Assassin missions still exist as single-player experiences, but only if you own the content from Hitman 2).

There’s an argument to be made that IO has maintained its focus on what people like about the series in Hitman 3 while letting experiments that worked less well fall away, but it still feels like there’s a bit less game here than in the past. That said, the World of Assassination games also have excelled with their post-release content, and we know that the timed Elusive Target missions are making a return at some point, which softens the blow of multiplayer mode losses. There’s also the addition of virtual reality support for PlayStation players, allowing you to play Hitman 3 in first-person mode (along with all the missions from Hitman 1 and 2, if you own them), although we played on PC and thus couldn’t test it.

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And as with Hitman 2, Hitman 3 functions as a platform for past games’ levels, so you can play everything from Hitman 1 and 2 with your new unlocked weapons and Hitman 3’s improvements. Continuing to have access to all Hitman content in one place is a nice addition, although you have to have purchased it all at some point or another.

What’s good about Hitman–its level design and the creativity, experimentation, and exploration that affords–is great in Hitman 3. It closes out the trilogy by brilliantly playing off everything that came before it, making use of and then subverting expectations, and rewarding players for their willingness to master the complexity of both its individual levels and the series as a whole.

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Now Playing: Hitman 3 Review

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition Review

When people think of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, they’ll likely gravitate to either the comics from Bryan Lee O’Malley or the live-action film from Edgar Wright. However, one of the lesser-known strands of the Scott Pilgrim brand was the film’s licensed game tie-in. Like the film, it was not only a faithful adaptation of the comics’ tribute to geek culture and retro games, but it also happened to be a fun co-op brawler in its own right. After a sudden delisting from digital video game stores in 2014, the once-lost licensed game has scored a second life with the Complete Edition, and it hasn’t lost its exuberant style. The game’s passion for a bygone era can often be a bit overwhelming, yet it still offers a satisfying time brawling through the streets with friends.

Like its comic and film counterpart, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game sticks with the same video game-inspired conceit, but interprets it into an actual video game. After the titular character meets the girl of his dreams in Ramona Flowers, Scott and his bandmates Kim and Stephen, along with Ramona, have to fight a rogue’s gallery of evil exes seeking to disrupt the relationship. In the vein of a classic arcade brawler, the game keeps its story light to put all its energy into showing off the stunning 2D visuals of its side-scrolling beat-’em-up gameplay, which leans heavily into the splendor of the retro era.

The original game wore its inspirations–classic games like River City Ransom, Final Fight, and Final Fantasy–on its sleeve, and the Complete Edition keeps its aesthetic and core gameplay intact. What you get in this enhanced package is the full game, the four bonus modes involving zombies and dodgeball, and the extra DLC characters–which include Wallace Wells, Knives Chau, and hidden character Nega-Scott. The Complete Edition also comes with Network Mode for online play, which was a late addition in the final DLC for the original game.

One of the more striking aspects of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is its superb presentation. The spectacularly detailed and lively 2D art was impressive in 2010, and though the Complete Edition doesn’t make any updates to the graphics, the look still holds up well in 2021. The unique visual style presents itself as a hyper-detailed 16-bit game, and with a soundtrack from the indie-chiptune band Anamanaguchi, the game always keeps a youthful liveliness throughout its three-hour campaign. Adding to the atmosphere are tons of visual gags and deep cuts that reference classic horror films like Night of the Living Dead and retro games from the era of the SNES and Sega Genesis. My favorite homage is the world map of Toronto, which is modeled after Super Mario World’s stage-select interface. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game works as both a tribute to and a fun parody of retro games, and it still succeeds at being both with the Complete Edition.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game works as both a tribute to and a fun parody of retro games, and it still succeeds at being both with the Complete Edition.

While constantly referencing geek culture can be a bit passé in 2021, Scott Pilgrim puts most of its weight behind the core gameplay, and it still lands. Despite its hyperactive style, the core gameplay uses a simple control scheme and has clear objectives for you to follow. Once you’ve eased into the cadence, and when the game is firing on all cylinders, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a satisfying and even humorous brawler. A sense of repetition can easily set in after some time, which is a common side-effect of the genre, yet seeing my favorite characters evolve and grow in strength over the course of the story, and having them barrelling their way through crowds of angry ruffians that once put up a harsher fight, still manages to put a smile a my face. This satisfaction is enhanced when in a group, and pulling off special moves and team attacks with friends–where you can launch up enemies and with your allies naturally following up with an aerial attack or power move–offers a sense of finesse that can make the action fulfilling even after multiple playthroughs.

On the surface, it looks to be a standard brawler, which isn’t far off from the truth, but Scott Pilgrim actually has RPG mechanics working under the hood as well. You can collect resources from fallen enemies and spend them in shops to boost your stats, a necessary component for completing the game. However, the game never establishes that this is expected of you except in a tips sub-menu you have to check yourself, and these shops blend easily into the background during fights. While you do level up and earn new skills with experience points, the core character growth comes from buying items, and it can be easy to overlook this when sticking with the flow of the game. If you don’t take the time to boost your characters, you can easily hit a difficulty wall after a set of levels in the campaign, which can be annoying.

The game is at its best when played with friends, and many of the large-scale fights seem tailor-made for a full squad. Powering through a level with a group can make otherwise steady encounters turn into chaotic rumbles, yet playing solo can make it feel like you have the odds stacked against you. While you can still clear the game solo, and that’s how I rolled for two full playthroughs with different characters, there were moments when I felt the game’s AI was working overtime to keep me on the back foot. At times, playing solo will force you into encounters with as many as 10 enemies at once, most of whom are quick to use melee weapons and combos that can lock you into a daze. Without backup, it can be frustrating to face those encounters, which turn into extended bouts where you’ll need to carefully dodge thrown weaponry as you take out foes one by one. These moments can severely disrupt the pacing of the game, and though they don’t occur too often, these moments can severely disrupt the pacing of the game. It’s disappointing that the Complete Edition doesn’t rebalance these aspects of the game, as these issues were present in the original.

This is what makes the online play such a welcome feature, which players couldn’t experience until nearly two years after the original game’s launch. It’s now easier to sync up with other players online or invite friends for a game instead of having to stick with just local co-op. Though the options you have for how you want to tune online play are limited–you can choose public or private games and set the amount of players you want to join–from my experiences in a handful of online games on PC, I found it mostly stress-free to pull a squad together. However, these online sessions weren’t entirely free of issues. The new online mode did seem to trigger some occasional bugs, one of which halted progress in an early level. This only happened once, and the majority of my experience playing Scott Pilgrim online was largely stable and kept the fun of the core game.

Landing the final blow against an evil ex will cap off the fight with a dramatic finish.
Landing the final blow against an evil ex will cap off the fight with a dramatic finish.

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This new iteration for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is consistent with the original, yet disappointingly, the Complete Edition does come with some minor technical issues that stick out. Along with somewhat regular drops in frame rate during the more hectic levels, especially during online play, the Complete Edition’s overall sound mixing is quite poor. The music and sound effects are surprisingly low-volume throughout the game, and frequently, the game’s soundtrack–which itself is low–easily drowns out the action sound effects. While this may seem like a minor quibble, the sound effects of thrashing and pummeling foes add to the satisfaction of taking down enemies in a beat-’em-up. There were numerous instances where I was fighting enemies without much feedback, which was disappointing.

Though I had my fun with the original game 10 years ago and had moved on, I still found coming back to the core loop and flow of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game to be a satisfying romp. It’s not often to see games that get pulled from circulation get a second chance, yet the Complete Edition more than makes the case that this cult favorite beat-’em-up has earned another shot. While much has changed over the last decade when it comes to geek-appeal and retro gaming appeal, what’s here is still a solid beat-’em-up that’s gotten mostly better with age.

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Now Playing: 11 Minutes Of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World Co-op Gameplay

Super Meat Boy Forever Review — Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Every aspect of Super Meat Boy Forever is frustrating in some way or another. It’s a runner, so you have to time your jumps and don’t have the liberty of setting yourself up perfectly before taking on a puzzle. And despite putting you on a treadmill, its levels demand incredible nuance and precision, which you’ll hone through failure after failure after failure. Super Meat Boy Forever will kick you in the teeth and expect you to stand back up, flash a bloody grin, and go after it again. And that’s exactly what happens. Though the jumps may be challenging, Forever’s incredibly precise controls give you all the tools you need to stick the landing. The runner format is different, but it opens the door for new and interesting types of complex puzzles that spawn new, captivating varieties of spectacular yell-and-throw-your-controller platforming.

Like in the real world, time has passed in the Meat Boy universe. Meat Boy and Bandage Girl, whom he saved in the original, have settled down and had a baby, Nugget. In Forever, Nugget is kidnapped, so Meat Boy and Bandage Girl go after her. (You can play as either one from the very beginning.) The story has no material effect on your gameplay, but the short cartoon cutscenes find ways to grab your attention all the same with a webtoony out-of-left-field story chock-full of references to video game canon, adorable woodland creatures, cuddly animals, and the adorable little Nugget, who often proves too adorable for even her captor to ignore.

Super Meat Boy Forever captured on PC
Super Meat Boy Forever captured on PC

The cutscenes are thus an entertaining reward for hard-earned progress. Following in the original Super Meat Boy’s footsteps, Forever lays out levels sprinkled with bottomless pits and buzzsaws that require quick thinking and quicker reflexes to escape. At the same time, it’s a very different game. Meat Boy or Bandage Girl constantly runs forward, and you simply control when they jump, slide, or punch. By necessity, the levels take on longer, more horizontally oriented shapes to accommodate the new system. Despite those changes, Forever still retains the essence of Super Meat Boy. Though automated movement theoretically seems like it would make the platforming less satisfying, since you aren’t in complete control, Forever’s challenge is just as captivating.

Forever’s finely tuned controls give you precise control and a wide range of motion even with only a couple of inputs. Even though you control all three moves with just one button and the left analog stick, there is incredible nuance to each one. Holding down the button will get you different sized jumps. You have to slide to hit enemies without jumping. Punching in mid-air extends your jump, and landing a punch in the air lets you do it again. It is not enough to press the right button at the right time; you have to be able to feel how far you’re going to jump based on how long you press. Exploring and internalizing your controls so that they’re second nature is a telltale sign of mastery in most platformers, but it’s a prerequisite in Forever.

You don’t need to push an analog stick to the right, but somehow that seems to make every little bit of the game less forgiving. Forcing you to move and react at the game’s pace rather than your own makes hopping simple gaps and traps requires precise timing. More complex combinations of obstacles feel like puzzles and, unlike in Super Meat Boy, you now have to solve them on the fly… or after dying a few dozen times. (Luckily, Forever only needs a second to reload after each death.) Make no mistake: Though levels generally operate from left to right, the path is not always straight through. Many levels have sections where you’ll need to jump back off a wall and double back within a room to find your way through the nightmare maze in front of you.

Forever’s worlds feature familiar themes, like a clear-cut forest and a broken-down hospital, each world has its own unique quirks–enemies and obstacles that add new complications to your path. For example, in the hospital you’ll find ghosts, which you’ll need to punch mid-jump three times, often consecutively. The ghosts are a problem–you can’t jump past one if you don’t hit it–but they also create opportunity. Since punching an enemy launches you forward and landing a punch resets the attack, the ghosts allow you to leap across long gaps or bypass traps. Every enemy and many of the traps feature some kind of “close a door, open a window” set of mechanics that encourage adaptation and make every hop feel like a calculated decision.

The precise pathing and tight puzzles feel all the more impressive when you take into account that the levels are procedurally generated on a playthrough-by-playthrough basis. Even after checking out multiple variations of the first world, I can’t say how the levels are remixed from save to save, but puzzles and pathways flow from one area to another without seams. The precision involved, particularly when you consider how demanding these levels can be, goes well beyond what I’ve come to expect from procedural level design in most games.

The seed code for reviewer Mike Epstein's playthrough
The seed code for reviewer Mike Epstein’s playthrough

The design is not without its hangups, however. In a couple of spots, I found that certain enemy mechanics were not so intuitive, making it hard for me to find the way forward. Without a specific, bespoke moment to demonstrate how they worked, the runner mechanic became a serious puzzle-solving liability. Though you’re frequently confronted with areas where you aren’t exactly sure exactly what buttons to push, the path from point A to point B is pretty clear. But when the signal isn’t clear, you can face a truly confounding moment, where it seems as if your constantly running character has run out of road. That can taint the competitive frustration that builds in you over the tough gameplay with anxious anger, and sour the whole game. These moments are few and far between–it happened twice in my playthrough–but the procedural element means it could happen to you more, or not at all.

If you can navigate through those less-than-stellar confusing bits, the vast majority of Super Meat Boy Forever feels like clear sailing. Upholding the spirit of Super Meat Boy, it is pure platforming at its most demanding and most thrilling. Forever feels simple because of its controls, but its tough-as-nails levels are perfectly complex, pulling you through and knocking you down with clever challenges. Like Meat Boy himself, the fun, frustration, and motivation never really stop. It builds and pushes you through until you press every button perfectly. You just keep playing and trying and dying until you’ve had enough. And when you’re finally finished, if you’ve really put everything you had into the game, you might even feel a little runner’s high.

Calico Review

I was quite a young girl when I first got interested in video games. It was something of an awkward transition. At the time, games were largely considered “boy toys,” so moving from typical “girly” things like princess dolls and My Little Ponies into gaming was jarring at times, especially since not a lot of games catered to the cute, colorful things I’d been enjoying at playtime to that point. Sure, I loved the fantasy worlds of Mario and Sonic, but I also wished there was a fun gaming playspace for me that echoed the fluffy-cats-and-rainbow-unicorns aesthetic of my Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers.

Had my third-grade self seen Calico, an open-world animal cafe and social interaction game, she would have lost her mind. Calico embraces an aesthetic and theme that is shamelessly, unabashedly girly in the best ways–a world of happy magical girls living in pastel-colored lands with fluffy, cotton-candy trees where all kinds of lovable animals roam freely. But while Calico’s concept and visuals are a delight, the simplistic, bug-ridden gameplay dragged me kicking and screaming out of the childhood fantasy world I so wanted to exist in.

Calico is very cute (screenshots captured on PC).
Calico is very cute (screenshots captured on PC).

Calico starts off with your created player character inheriting a cat cafe in a faraway world where magic is very real and a part of everyday living. Your job is to fill your little cafe with animals, decorations, and cute kitty-themed pastries while exploring the world and helping your new friends with various errands. It’s a very laid-back, play-as-you-please experience in the vein of other life-sim games, but with an air of play and fairy magic baked in: You can buy potions with funny effects to use on yourself and your animal friends, like shrinking down to mini-size to cook, zooming around while riding on giant red pandas and bunnies, decorating your house with clouds, flowers, and cat paws, and collecting basically any animal in the game (that isn’t already someone else’s pet) to be a part of your cafe or your traveling posse.

You’ll meet plenty of new faces as the game progresses, including potion-making witches, nature-loving flower friends, and even a few furry human/animal hybrid folk. Many of them will ask you for help with various minor problems, like rounding up animals or baking a specific treat to give to a pal, and will reward you with money, fashion, furniture, and recipes for the cafe. You won’t find anything in the way of conflict or combat here–the worst that happens is some characters feel awkward talking to each other and need you as a go-between. At certain points, you’ll need to open up a new section of the world, which involves completing a specific quest chain, in order to progress further.

It’s a very basic gameplay loop, but also Calico’s biggest problem: It’s very simplistic. If you’re expecting even a basic cafe-running simulation, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as there’s very little you actually do with the cafe besides set up furniture and sometimes bake things. You mostly run errands and finish simple quests until the ability to unlock the next area opens up, then repeat the process. There’s a decent amount you can do outside of this–there are lots of toys you can use to play with animals, fashion items to collect and wear, and creatures to find and archive in your notebook–but it starts to wear thin fairly quickly, especially because rewards feel so sparse. There aren’t many surprises; you won’t be given spontaneous gifts or hear random weird conversations like in Animal Crossing, and there’s rarely incentive to improve the cafe or run it well beyond the occasional request from a friend for a specific animal or decoration.

An interior in Calico.
An interior in Calico.

Calico is also plagued with numerous bugs. While things like clipping and funny movement of characters or animal friends are forgivable, Calico has a fair few disruptive bugs that can ruin the game flow and, at worst, require a restart. During play, I’ve found myself getting trapped inside objects, starting conversations with characters that end abruptly for no apparent reason, and even get tasked with questlines that I shouldn’t be able to because the area in question isn’t open yet. It’s also worth noting that the Switch version runs quite poorly in comparison to the PC version: I played both, and eventually had to move to PC because the choppy frame rate and visual hiccups in the Switch version became a literal headache.

My eight-year-old self would have absolutely loved Calico to bits, I’m sure. Unfortunately, I am no longer a wide-eyed, curious 8-year-old girl–I’m a game reviewer whose tolerance for bugs and simplistic gameplay has worn thin over the decades. As much as I wish I could view Calico through the eyes of an imaginative youngster, I can’t. Perhaps if you are better at embracing your childlike fantasies, you may be able to overlook Calico’s many flaws and appreciate its imaginative, fairy-dust-sprinkled charm, but I feel that the magic will wear thin quite quickly.

Medal Of Honor: Above And Beyond Review

Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond marks a return to the series’ historical roots as well as its first foray into virtual reality. It’s been a long time since we’ve stormed the beaches of Normandy or liberated Nazi-occupied France in a Medal of Honor game, but Above and Beyond strives to bring us back to that familiar WWII experience within the new technology. Being asked to answer the call of duty and return to the battlefield in a new Medal of Honor is an exciting prospect, but Above and Beyond is far too simple a shooter and far too restrictive to ever feel engaging like the series once was.

Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’s campaign is composed of six major missions, each of which is broken into smaller sections, moving you from location to location as you make your way through the story. Each moment of gameplay has you moving through a small area and using a variety of WWII weaponry to take out Nazis. These moments can feature you walking around on foot or, at times, in the back of a vehicle.

Some of the action sequences can be a little too intense, including a sequence where my character was in the back of a moving truck and shooting enemies in the opposite direction, which made me especially motion sick. That said, Above and Beyond offers some great comfort options to help alleviate motion sickness. These include settings that let you tweak turning increments, turn on tunnel vision when sprinting, or even let you skip more intense action sequences entirely and continue through the story. These were enough to alleviate my own issues with motion sickness and made it possible for me to make it through every section without skipping through them. Starting up a new VR game without knowing how your mind and body will react to its movement can be intimidating, but Above and Beyond’s options help mitigate discomfort you may experience throughout its duration.

Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond (screenshots provided by the publisher)
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond (screenshots provided by the publisher)

Using classic weapons, especially single-shot rifles like the M1 Garand, makes for some enjoyable shooting galleries between cutscenes. Shotguns or long-range rifles feel appropriately deadly, capable of taking out an enemy with a single shot and sending their lifeless body to the ground. Wielding the powerful Gewehr 43 sniper rifle or using the iconic Walther P38 pistol against an onslaught of enemies can deliver some exhilarating moments. Automatic weapons, however, don’t feel entirely accurate or powerful, even when you feather the trigger as you take aim at enemy threats.

Some of my favorite firearms to use in Above and Beyond include the lever-action repeater and the sawed-off shotgun. The repeater feels more like something out of a Western than a World War II epic; once you shoot down an enemy, you flick the right controller to reload it, causing the repeater to spin in your hands as if you were a Wild West trick shooter. Likewise, the sawed-off shotgun requires you to flick the right controller to flip the barrel open, throw your shells in with the left controller, and flick the right controller closed before you fire off another shot. Most of the guns have standard reload animations and functions, and while I really enjoyed these quirkier animations, they feel tonally disparate from a game featuring short documentaries of real veterans.

As you play through Above and Beyond, you unlock new documentaries that feature World War II vets telling their stories. Available in the Gallery section of the main menu, these videos are genuinely great, giving a platform to an important generation. It’s moving to hear these men speak of their past, and while I expected a bleak set of films, it was a very human and uplifting experience watching them–the introductory video starts with a veteran who notes that one of his medals is for his professional conduct but that it just means no one caught him, laughing like a grandfather being silly with his grandkids. So, it’s disappointing then that Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond never strives to do anything meaningful with its own story, sidestepping the reality of war and the humanity of those in it.

The campaign too often forces you to stand or sit still, watching the stilted characters and uninteresting stories play out around you. A lot of the dialogue and situations are standard WWII fare, and none of these moments carry much personality or weight. You’re often not a central player in any of these scenes, either, acting as more of a spectator than a character. A cutscene in any non-VR game is easy enough to sit through, but the dynamic changes when you’re plugged into virtual reality and literally standing around as characters talk about how they’re going to foil the Nazis’ latest plan.

During these scenes, there are moments when you’re asked to contribute, such as giving a thumbs up or choosing where squadmates will be for an ambush. However, these moments don’t feel particularly impactful when the events actually play out. And even if your choices and actions had more weight, the content of Above and Beyond’s setpieces is still bland and uninspired; as I stood there and waited for characters whose names I had forgotten to finish their conversations–sometimes pulling out my pistol to dump a few magazines into the air–I couldn’t help but get fidgety and want to stop playing altogether.

Conversely, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’s multiplayer is all action. Moving around a map, finding other players, and shooting them down is satisfying, especially when you’re on a good run. As fun as it is to shoot players in a non-VR game, there’s a sense of shocking immediacy when you see a real person running at you and a greater sense of accomplishment when you dominate the other team. Your own movements, accuracy, and reflexes get you that win. It’s exciting in these moments, but being on the other end of a dominant player’s iron sights can quickly turn frustrating, as racking up respawn timers means a lot of (literally) standing around and waiting to get back into the action.

Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond (screenshots provided by the publisher)
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond (screenshots provided by the publisher)

Most multiplayer rounds turn into games of deathmatch, even if it’s an objective-based match type. This is typical of many first-person shooters, but it feels exacerbated here by a lack of explanation for modes like Mad Bomber. Above and Beyond tells you that you score points by planting your bombs and defusing enemy bombs, but that’s it. This vague direction devolves each match into who can get the most kills, which gets you points anyway and almost always decides the winner.

This wouldn’t be as disappointing if not for the low player count. In the majority of my matches post-release, I’ve only been up against one real player. Above and Beyond fills each match with bots, so you’re never left without a full game, but they’re still bots and can’t pose the same challenge or satisfaction as having to outplay a real person. And while the guns are exciting to use, I found my personal favourite to be overpowered. The Repeater has a fast reload speed and is always a one-hit kill. It’s not so bad when you’re facing another player who can easily take you out if you miss your first shot, but when it’s you in a match with mostly bots, it becomes a relatively simple shooting gallery.

Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is a disappointing return to the classic series. While its gunplay is satisfying, the moments where it shines are all too brief, stunted by cutscenes that force you to stand in place and spectate a story that rarely includes you or your character. On the other hand, the multiplayer has potential but is in need of more players and some balance tweaks. There are some incredible World War II games that are worth playing even today, but Above and Beyond falls short in far too many ways to be considered among them.

Myst Oculus Quest Review

If you’ve enjoyed having your brain teased by a video game in the last 20 years, or enjoyed the layered mechanical riddles of an IRL escape room, you have Myst to thank. Wildly popular when it launched in 1993, the narrative adventure was a pivotal moment for puzzle-solving in games. Now, 27 years later, the classic is reborn in virtual reality–rebuilt, but almost completely unchanged. Myst is and will always be a treasure. Even after all these years, its puzzles will still test, and maybe even stump, you. For returning fans, seeing it in VR for the first time is a powerful nostalgia trip. Being inside a world you’ve only seen through a screen before feels like diving into your own memory. When you get over that initial sense of wonder–or if you don’t have the nostalgia that conjures it–Myst can’t hide its age, and its VR makeover exacerbates its blemishes.

Myst is a small uninhabited island dotted with odd buildings and unintuitive, free-standing switches. When you arrive, you have no idea why you’re there or what you should be doing. As you poke around–opening every door, pressing all the switches, reading the books and notes you find–your situation starts to take shape. Trapped on Myst, you will need to unravel its puzzles to uncover its secrets and escape.

The content of Myst’s places and puzzles do not follow any kind of unifying aesthetic–they are united in service of creating perplexing challenges that require you to be mindful of your surroundings and think creatively. At a glance, each puzzle seems completely obtuse, a hodge-podge of interactive puzzle pieces that don’t easily fit together. More often than not, you’ll need to take a good long look at your surroundings and figure out how the puzzle works before you can solve it.

Myst on Oculus Quest
Myst on Oculus Quest

The first puzzle, explained in a note you find when you first arrive, sets the tone for the whole game: The note tells you to count the number of switches on the island, and enter that number into a machine to view a secret message. However, the switches have been placed adjacent to points of interest on the island, so they look as if they should be connected to other puzzles. Plus, switches are normally meant to be pulled. You would never figure out how to use them if not for the note. They unlock something, but they don’t do what you’d expect or work intuitively.

As far as I can tell, all the original puzzles remain intact, so returning players who remember what to do can fly through the game. If you want the game to keep you honest, though, there is a puzzle randomizer, which changes the symbol- and number-based answers. The randomizer doesn’t change how the puzzles are solved, but it forces you to go through all the steps without cutting corners.

Myst’s story is also a puzzle. Told in bits and pieces, learning the island’s history leads you to learn more about how you might escape. Like the puzzles, the information you’ll need doesn’t make itself obvious, so you have to pay close attention and keep information in mind as you go. In the 1990s, this was a game where you would need to write things down on a piece of paper. On the Quest, I found myself taking lots of screenshots, which takes a little longer but ultimately worked just as well.

Taking notes is just one aspect of Myst that feels archaic. Compared to modern puzzle and adventure games, Myst is an incredibly inconvenient game. Many of the puzzles require you to walk to one area to flip a switch, then go somewhere to check whether doing so led to the intended result. And, even with a scratchpad, there are a few puzzles that rely on your being a thorough investigator with a very good memory. Even as a fan of the original, inclined to forgive its faults, I recognize that it can become tedious checking your work and tinkering with puzzles, especially when you get stuck–doubly so when using VR-style “teleport” movement.

Gallery

I played Myst on my Mac when I was a kid, but hadn’t touched it for many years. Even after decades away, though, when I found myself on the dock in the game’s opening moments, I recognized where I was. Though the game looks very different; the original’s pre-rendered visuals feel more vibrant and alive in 3D. Standing on the dock in VR, as opposed to simply seeing it on a screen, felt like a lucid dream. It felt like I was reliving a memory from my childhood. It had been long enough that I didn’t remember much about actually solving the puzzles, but I still recognized many of the spaces.

I knew them well enough to see that the environments are more realistic and detailed. If you look at the original ’90s versions, many of the environments had a craggy, geometric quality. In VR, the environments look smoother and more well-proportioned. In many places, the world is more detailed. You can see wood grain, rivets in pipes, and other small details. Though enhanced, the world hasn’t changed. This is just a more complete rendering of it.

Even without that emotional context, Myst is a simple game, with mechanics that translate well to a VR experience. Exploring every nook and cranny of the world is infinitely more captivating when you’re in it, as opposed to simply looking at it. Turning the knobs, pulling the levers, and flipping the switches feels more engaging than merely pointing and clicking. Like many VR games, you can switch between two movement controls: using the analog to move and “teleport” movement, where you hold and release the left analog stick to resituate yourself. You can also walk around your immediate surroundings if you have the free space to set up room-scale tracking. Room-scale can’t replace the other methods, but using room-scale in puzzle rooms really enhances the sensation that you’re in the space.

Myst on Oculus Quest
Myst on Oculus Quest

At the same time, VR, and the Oculus Quest specifically, impose some technical limitations. While the new art successfully realizes a more detailed version of Myst, the visual fidelity of the new version leaves something to be desired. Many objects have ragged, pixelated edges. Text, particularly when it’s supposed to be hand-written, is blurry and hard to read, though I never encountered anything I couldn’t read outright.

In general, the Quest version of Myst is also technically shaky at launch. In just over six hours, I encountered multiple bugs that killed my save without crashing the game. In one instance, when I teleported into a wall, the impact was obvious. In another, where a puzzle didn’t reset properly, I moved on and completed whole sections of the game before realizing there was a problem. The auto-save feature tracks you down to the second, so saving manually is important. Some things never change, I guess.

If you’re like me and have some reverence for Myst from a bygone age, you can forgive the technical flaws. Getting to not only return to the game, but see it in VR, was a surreal, heartwarming experience. And it was heartening to find that, even years later, it still has teeth. Newcomers may find it a tough hang between its unforgiving old-school adventure game tendencies and some technical issues, but it’s still an impressive brain-teaser and a neat cultural artifact.

Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 Review

Fans of competitive, block-dropping puzzle games had it pretty rough for most of the last decade. Creativity in the Tetris space was being stifled by a strict set of game-rules guidelines imposed by The Tetris Company, while Puyo Puyo was mostly trapped in Japan, playable only by those international fans fervent enough to tread import waters. Thankfully, things have changed somewhat on both fronts, bringing us the unusual mashup title Puyo Puyo Tetris in 2017 to critical and fan success. Three years later, we now have a follow-up in the form of Puyo Puyo Tetris 2. While it keeps much of what made the original game a success, it offers a few new game modes and online enhancements–but as a sequel, it lacks the same punch as the original.

Like in the original game, Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 is built around an engine combining these two competitive puzzle titans into a singular game entity. Players pick either Puyo Puyo or Tetris gameplay and go up against an opponent, with rules adjusted according to which style they’re using–or they can play a mode that switches between Puyo Puyo and Tetris gameplay at set intervals. If you’re feeling especially brave, you can attempt Fusion mode, which puts Puyo blobs and Tetromino blocks on the same board in a complex rules mashup that will put your puzzling skills to the true test.

But that’s just the beginning. There’s a lot on offer in Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 for both solo and multiplayer play. The Adventure mode offers an all-new story, complete with a pleasant new overworld interface and featuring a cast of colorful weirdos–mostly from the expanded Puyo Puyo universe–who solve all of their problems and disagreements by tossing colored blobs and blocks at each other. The game modes change in every chapter, so Adventure Mode serves as a way to practice and learn the various styles of gameplay available while also unlocking characters, in-game shop credits, and various embellishments for your profile. While the rainbow-colored characters and their jokey personalities are certainly cute, the nonsensical nature of the narrative will either charm you to bits or leave you mashing the skip button to get to the dropping faster. This mode takes a few hours to finish, and future DLC expansions have been teased.

Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 on Nintendo Switch
Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 on Nintendo Switch

After you’ve finished Adventure Mode–or if you want to take a break from it–you have several options for both solo and multiplayer play for up to four people (or CPU bots). Besides all the gameplay styles above, you have special rulesets like Party Mode, which puts chaos-causing items onfield, and Big Bang Mode, a challenge of who can solve certain puzzle formations quicker. If you don’t want the stress of competition, there are challenge modes like Marathon (clear 150 Tetris lines) and Tiny Puyo (make a gigantic Puyo combo with a big playfield). Of course, solo endless Puyo and Tetris modes are available as well for those times when you just want to zone out and crush some blocks and/or squish some blobs.

These modes are certainly nice, but most of them were already available in the original Puyo Puyo Tetris. However, there have been some revamps since the first game. For example, the Lessons mode now offers a wealth of playable tutorials to give you hands-on experience with some more advanced techniques. Need to work on your Puyo stacking prowess? Don’t have the slightest clue what a T-spin is or how to do it? You can now learn quickly and easily thanks to this thoughtful new addition. There are also new visual flourishes ranging from the subtle to the flashy, including an impressively elaborate background animation when a player has a particularly high combo happening.

Of course, a big draw for competitive puzzlers is online play, and Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 delivers on that front. Besides offering a ranked mode in the form of Puzzle Leagues, you can also play casual matches with friends or random players across several different game modes with an easy-to-use lobby system. Online play is smooth and hassle-free, and I had no connectivity issues with players as far away as Europe and Australia, even on Wi-Fi.

Gallery

The marquee feature in Puyo Puyo Tetris 2, however, is the Skill Battle mode. In this mode, you form a team of three characters, each with individual stats and battle skills, to fight an opponent’s team of three. You can also equip special items earned through certain quests in Adventure Mode to further augment your team’s stats and grant additional boons, such as bonuses to chains.

You then proceed to pick your game of choice and square off against a foe, but instead of trying to make them top out, you set off combos and complete line clears to deal damage to their health bar. You’ll also be able to make use of the three character skills you have assigned, which have a variety of effects ranging from changing colors of Puyos to clearing up garbage waiting to be dropped–you can even spontaneously create a perfect set of lines for a Tetris or T-Spin combo instantly. Provided, of course, that you have the MP available to do so. It’s a cool idea, and the shift in focus to damaging an opponent’s lifebar instead of making them top out adds a new way to think about offensive and defensive play–in some Skill Battle setups, topping out and getting a clean board to work with is actually a good thing if you have recovery options in place.

Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 on Nintendo Switch
Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 on Nintendo Switch

However, the most interesting elements of Skill Battle are undermined by its implementation of RPG-style stats and enhancement items. Characters gain experience points in certain Adventure Mode nodes, which grants them better stats, and helpful items to equip are also farmable in these areas. These items and stats carry over to every other Skill Battle mode, both single-player and multiplayer, on- and offline, including the Puzzle League. This leads to some serious problems: If you’re underleveled or lack good items compared to your opponent, you’re at a severe disadvantage that skilled play and technique usage can only slightly compensate for. Needing to grind for items and levels in a puzzle game simply to be competitive–or even just to beat some of the tougher Adventure Mode quests–is tedious and unfair on several levels, and ruins much of Skill Battle’s appeal. I suspect that eventually the Skill Battle leaderboards will be dominated by level 99 teams that have poured hours into securing optimal item loadouts, leaving new players with an incredible hill to climb if they even want to become slightly competitive.

There’s no denying that Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 offers a lot of value–and even if you’re just here for simple Tetris or Puyo play, there’s plenty to satisfy. But as a sequel, the new additions it brings to the table feel rather inadequate, particularly the flawed Skill Battle mode. If you’ve never had a taste of this flavorful mashup before, then Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 will certainly quench your thirst for wacky puzzle antics and then some. But if you’re a veteran looking for a truly substantial upgrade to the original game, Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 might leave you feeling rather unfulfilled.

Cyberpunk 2077 Review

Early on in Cyberpunk 2077, there’s a series of side quests that has you tracking down rogue taxis run by faulty AI. You have to talk one of the taxis down from suicide as it contemplates driving off a bridge, while another needs to be brute-forced into behaving, and a third is an obvious reference to a famous video game AI that manipulates you as you chase it down. It’s one of the best minor questlines in the game, an intriguing and surprisingly human substory that rewards you with lots of much-needed cash. It’s also an excuse to send you to every corner of Night City, a clever introduction to all the areas you haven’t yet been.

I spent a lot of my playtime following side-quest threads like this one, excited about the premise and hoping to find something as interesting or fun or rewarding at the end and, in many cases, I did. But now, after finishing the main story, I can’t see how most of those activities fit into the overall narrative or the character I was playing. The main story doesn’t even gel with itself.

Cyberpunk 2077 draws heavily from its source material, with everything from the world itself to the life and death of Johnny Silverhand coming from its pen-and-paper inspiration. But unlike in a tabletop RPG, you aren’t playing a role of your own creation in Cyberpunk 2077; you’re playing V, and this is V’s story, not yours. I often felt like I was role-playing two different characters: one V for the side quests and one more limited V for the main story.

That’s mostly because the main story puts you on a clock. It’s not literally on a timer, but it is very urgent in the way that RPG stories often are, and it has the same pitfalls as a result. It feels weird to do throwaway fun stuff when you have a serious, ever-present threat to attend to, and in V’s case, it just doesn’t make sense to dally.

You have more freedom to play the character you really want to during side activities, but main-story V has clearly defined priorities. I often couldn’t find the character I’d been developing via side quests when I returned to the main plot–not in how I’d been shaping her personality as she reacted to events, nor in the hacker I built as she was forced into more traditional boss fights.

Welcome To The Machine

I knew from the outset that I wanted to play as a hacker, so I sped through the character creator, gave my V points in intellect and cool for hacking and stealth, respectively, and started the game. I had picked the Nomad lifepath out of the three total options because it was the only one that positioned V as an outsider to Night City; I figured that I didn’t know Night City yet as a newcomer to the game, so why should V?

From what I can tell, that lifepath choice didn’t affect more than the way the game starts and some dialogue options throughout (and possibly some minor side quests). Now that I’ve finished the story, I’m much more curious about the Corpo lifepath, in which V used to work at antagonist corporation Arasaka, and how that fits into what I played, but it doesn’t feel like a majorly important decision in my experience.

The real RPG core is in your five main stats, which are further split into two or three different skill trees, each providing various benefits to combat, stealth, hacking, and so on. Using these subskills will passively level them up and give you additional benefits, ensuring you grow according to how you play in addition to how you actively invest points as you level up.

Looking the part (captured on PC by GameSpot producer Jake Dekker)
Looking the part (captured on PC by GameSpot producer Jake Dekker)

The parent skills mainly govern what dialogue options you can use and what kinds of doors you’re able to open, at least in the moment-to-moment (they otherwise provide minor stat boosts). Because of this, I tended to invest skills based on my curiosity in conversations or to access areas I wanted to explore. For example, I’d bank points until I found myself in front of a door that required X points in body to force open, and then I’d level up right there and then so I could see what was behind the door. Because the subskills have their own leveling and points system, I found I could freely invest overall skill points without sacrificing my hacking goals–at least when it came to the traditional RPG progression.

Hacking into computers and transferring money to your account is one thing; it only requires enough points in the intellect parent skill, just like how body allows you to open certain doors. On the other hand, quickhacking, which allows you to manipulate cameras, turrets, enemies, and more in hostile scenarios, requires a lot of cyberware investment. Specifically, you need a good cyberdeck–which determines how many different quickhacks you can equip–that has enough RAM so you can use ones that demand more memory.

Cyberware in general is not cheap. On top of that, an early story mission is gated by a significant sum of money, so I had to do a lot of grinding before I could afford a proper cyberdeck that made my quickhacks truly effective. Until then, I felt like I had to use guns a lot more than I wanted to, which didn’t fit with how I initially built my character. I didn’t mind the guns overall, though; while it’s not on par with dedicated first-person shooters, the gunplay is decent. It’s a little clunky, even after tweaking my sensitivity settings, but the aim assist does the heavy lifting.

Once I got a good cyberdeck and equipped better quickhacks, combat really picked up for me. I had a quickhack that reset an enemy’s optics–pretty much everyone in Night City has cyberware in place of organic eyes–and temporarily blinded them, which allowed me to sneak past. I was able to shut off entire camera systems easily and set turrets to “friendly mode” so they wouldn’t shoot me on sight. I approached most encounters like a puzzle: I’d hack into the camera systems to see how many enemies I’m dealing with, then figure out who to distract and in which direction so I could move from room to room undetected. If that didn’t work, I at least knew I could jam their weapons or shock their systems from afar.

When I found my rhythm and found the cash, I really enjoyed quickhacking as an alternative approach to combat, and it was always satisfying to get in, steal a bunch of money off some computers, and get out without being spotted.

You can buy much nicer cars in Cyberpunk 2077, but all of them get you where you're goin'.
You can buy much nicer cars in Cyberpunk 2077, but all of them get you where you’re goin’.

Because I was so focused on this aspect of my character (and saving money to invest in it), I didn’t end up spending much time on other approaches; I got the mantis blades, which are cyberware swords that spring out of your arms, so late in the game that I barely used them. Other cyberware upgrades, like a leg modification that gives you a double-jump, were so expensive that I’d have to opt to take on side jobs just to afford them, though this becomes easier later in the game when those gigs have bigger payouts.

In fact, most nice things in Night City are prohibitively expensive, and I found that money was often the only obstacle when it came to progression. Granted, I was playing Cyberpunk on a tight deadline, so I couldn’t spend much time doing odd jobs. But there is a ridiculous amount of stuff to buy and seemingly endless moneymaking jobs to take on. There’s even a whole section in your quest journal dedicated to all the cars people have offered to sell you–though you start the game with a car, and I got multiple free vehicles for completing side quests, so I never bought a car and couldn’t find a real reason to.

Mad City

That’s emblematic of the world of Cyberpunk 2077. It is so full of things to buy, to do, to see, and yet so much of it doesn’t feel essential. Night City is massive, and while you can fast travel from specific points, you’ll often need to walk or drive a bit to your destination. I started to compare prices from one ripperdoc to the next–they’re how you upgrade your oh-so expensive cyberware–but stopped after the third because I didn’t want to drag myself across the city all day. I went clothing shopping only once for the same reason, and I’d managed to loot more than one cute outfit off of corpses anyway. There’s even an entire crafting and item upgrade menu that I never actually needed to use, given that I was regularly looting better gear and items off my numerous enemies; at least in my playthrough, I had no reason to engage with these systems at all.

Night City is beautiful and vile. The architecture is often stunning, and some of my favorite sections of the game were when I drove from one district to the next, radio turned up, taking in all the neon lights and monolithic megabuildings piercing the sky. Then I’d get out of the car and hear one of the oft-repeated advertisements blaring out onto the street and quickly snap out of the reverie of driving. There’s one ad that’s just a man making a long, exaggerated orgasm sound that tended to pierce through any conversation I was having.

It’s a tough world and a hard one to exist in, by design; with no apparent purpose and context to that experience, all you’re left with is the unpleasantness.

The ads are one of many, many aesthetic choices in Cyberpunk 2077 that are grating with no real point. There’s one ad in particular that was the topic of much discussion pre-release; it features a feminine person with a giant, exaggerated, veiny erection in their leotard and advertises a drink called Chromanticore with the tagline “mix it up.” It is everywhere. And while the “purpose” of it may be to show what a sex-obsessed, superficial, exploitative place Night City is, there’s nothing in the main story or any of the side quests I did that gives it even that much context–I found just one message on one of the many computers I logged into that commented on how low-brow Night City culture is. The result is that there’s a fetishization of trans people at every turn, in a game with only one very minor trans character (that I found, at least) and no way to play as an authentically trans character yourself.

I found and read tons of text logs, scoured people’s private messages, listened to radio and TV programs and random NPC conversations, and I struggled to find justifications for many of Cyberpunk’s more questionable and superficial worldbuilding choices. It’s a world where megacorporations rule people’s lives, where inequality runs rampant, and where violence is a fact of life, but I found very little in the main story, side quests, or environment that explores any of these topics. It’s a tough world and a hard one to exist in, by design; with no apparent purpose and context to that experience, all you’re left with is the unpleasantness.

Scenes from Night City.Scenes from Night City.
Scenes from Night City.

There are instances where the game does start to do more with an initially superficial choice, but these threads are often dropped quickly. For example, in the pen-and-paper game, the Voodoo Boys were a group of mostly white men who used “voodoo” stereotypes to scare people. In 2077, they are a group of Haitian people displaced by natural disaster (by my interpretation, one caused by climate change). At one point in the main story, you can ask a Voodoo Boys member what the name is about, given they don’t actually do anything associated with “voodoo”; he tells you to ask the people that call them that and refuses to tell you what they call themselves. There’s a seed of an interesting idea here–the labels given to the “other,” diaspora, the trauma of losing your home–but none of this is ever explored again in the main story as I played it, nor in any of the many side quests I played, either. I didn’t find another opportunity to interact with the Voodoo Boys at all.

There’s so much to cover that I can’t possibly touch on everything, but my experience is that there are aspects of the game that feel lost in translation, invoking cultures that aren’t adequately explored or contextualized. Characters in one side quest use the word “ofrenda” as if it means “funeral” when it’s actually a particular kind of altar primarily for Day of the Dead–it’s unclear to me if this is a translation issue or an overall misunderstanding of Mexican customs, since you do put together an altar during the event that’s being called “the ofrenda.” As another example, you can go to a clothing store in Japantown and buy “yukata” that are just wrap shirts bearing only the slightest resemblance to real yukata. It’s not that Cyberpunk always gets everything wrong in its incorporation of a variety of cultures and backgrounds but that the world is so big and unruly that I never knew what I would find around any corner or if I’d understand what the intent behind it was–I just grew to accept that whatever I did find, at least in terms of setting and worldbuilding, would likely be superficial.

With A Little Help From My Friends

That’s the case for the world overall and its background characters, anyway. You meet a lot of people in Night City, many of whom die in your wake like you’re some sort of curse, while others just call from time to time with a job for you to do. The few that don’t die and have proper arcs make up V’s friends and love interests, and these are the characters that rightfully stand out.

The first is Panam Palmer, who wins the award for the best name in the game. She’s a rough-around-the-edges type of girl trying to make her own way in Night City and leaving her Nomad family behind in the process. This was the one instance where I felt my Nomad lifepath actually enhanced the experience–by choosing the Nomad-related responses, I actually felt like I was bonding with Panam over our similar backgrounds. Her quests are often fun, poorly thought-out heists, and by the end, I really did feel like I’d made V a lifelong friend who would drop everything to help her out.

V with Panam Palmer, who is best described as a wonderful disaster.V with Panam Palmer, who is best described as a wonderful disaster.
V with Panam Palmer, who is best described as a wonderful disaster.

My favorite character, though, is Judy Alvarez, an earnest, hot-tempered, beautifully human character with the best arc in the game. She edits braindances, which are kind of like VR movies where you can acutely feel the recorder’s emotions (and they’re often used for porn). Judy is an incredibly gifted BD editor, and she’s also a member of the Moxes, a gang of sex workers that look out for one another. Judy’s story unfolds thanks to her fierce and endless desire to fight for her friends, which leads to some of the most interesting quests in the game–and some of the only ones that give you the ability to properly fight back against such a bleak, exploitative world. The final section of Judy’s arc was my favorite in the entire game. It’s a quiet respite from the lights and sounds of the city, an intimate look into the soul of her character, and provided you meet the requirements, contains the only sex scene I saw that didn’t make me want to die on the spot.

Romance doesn’t play a major role in Cyberpunk, at least in what I saw and played, but you can sleep with sex workers and the occasional random NPC–although I wouldn’t recommend it. The sex scenes are all POV-style to fit with the game’s first-person perspective, and they are awkward. One was so awful that I actually rolled back my save and told the guy I’d rather be friends instead. He took it like a champ.

Keanu Reeves: The Man, The Legend

Legendary rockerboy Johnny Silverhand is with you for the vast majority of the game, showing up in pretty much every mission to try to influence your decisions, make snide remarks, or just kick back on a bed in the background while you talk to someone. His relationship with V is often antagonistic, sometimes playfully so, and other times outright hostile.

Johnny is, simply put, an asshole. It’s a testament to Keanu Reeves’ performance that I actually liked him. He treated his friends badly and women worse. As dialogue options routinely point out, he may or may not qualify as a terrorist; before he died in 2023, he planted a nuke inside Arasaka Tower, an attack against corporate imperialism that ended up killing a lot of people and an important event in the original tabletop game. He’s the kind of guy who gets away with far too much, and based on what I learned about him throughout the game, I’m surprised he died at the hands of Adam Smasher rather than by choking on his own vomit after a bender.

Johnny is, simply put, an asshole. It’s a testament to Keanu Reeves’ performance that I actually liked him.

Reeves is somehow able to make all of this interesting and kind of charming rather than extremely off-putting. For the most part, Johnny is a well-written character in that I was always curious to hear what he had to say and how he interpreted the situations we were in–I was never quite sure if his advice was any good or if his opinions had any merit, but I wanted to hear him out every time. It’s Reeves’ delivery of these lines, which often involve Johnny chastising you for something or other, that really sells the “lovable jerk” vibe that I would normally find overplayed.

The push-and-pull of Johnny’s opinions and your own adds a lot of color to even run-of-the-mill missions. At one point I didn’t heed Johnny’s condescending warnings and accepted a deal from a character who ended up tricking me, which also resulted in a lot of people dying (oops); another time, I pursued a side quest only because he practically begged me to do it, saying it was the most interesting thing we’d stumbled upon in a long time (and it did end up being unlike anything else in the game). The dynamic is compelling and left me on my toes, always wondering if I should listen to Johnny or follow my initial instincts.

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077.Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077.
Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077.

I’m not sure if there were necessarily any completely right or wrong choices in a lot of those missions, but Johnny’s presence, and the ambiguity it brings, is supposed to have an effect on V’s psyche, for better or for worse–it’s a factor of the circumstances that put him in V’s head in the first place. That Johnny could affect my decision-making, as well as how I interpreted each interaction, is a clever way to convey that.

Bullet In The Head

Aside from character highlights, side quests are far and away the best part of the game. Like the rogue taxi one I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are quite a few clever, interesting, goofy, and sad side quests that I really enjoyed. On a gameplay level, they often provide a nice change of pace from the more combat-focused main story; sometimes you just talk to people, while a more involved one has you doing favors for Johnny since he’s, you know, technically dead.

One especially intriguing side quest had me playing detective, investigating a mysterious break-in at the apartment of a Night City mayoral candidate. Mechanically, it’s a simple open-world “use your ability to highlight clues” gimmick, but what follows is a fascinating and kind of creepy look at Night City corruption, gaslighting, and whether it’s better to tell someone the truth if it means it could get them killed. Conversely, I also did a really silly quest that involved a clown man with a grenade for a nose that had no point but was delightful in a weird way.

He's literally just a clown, but I kind of love him?He's literally just a clown, but I kind of love him?
He’s literally just a clown, but I kind of love him?

Side quests amounted to around 35 hours of my total playtime, and they were what propelled me through. While not every one lands, there are some that feel essential in a way that very little else in the game does. These include Judy’s story arc and the taxi excursion as well as a much shorter story about a depressed man who lives in V’s apartment building. Even on the tight review deadline, I kept finding myself seeking out just one more side quest before bed just because I was eager to see what I would find.

All that said, when I finished the game, I felt empty. All the friends I had made, what I learned about Johnny, the way I developed my V as a character–much of it didn’t seem to matter. Making friends in a lonely, sad city doesn’t affect the urgency of V’s main quest, and it doesn’t seem to affect her priorities related to it. Discovering a police-sponsored murder coverup or the depths of corporate control of Night City life doesn’t seem to change V’s ambitions to be remembered as a legendary Night City merc. Falling in love didn’t even give my V what she wanted.

I got a lot out of the side quests and some of the characters, but I got very little out of the overall story.

I don’t quite understand the ending I got, but it made me sad. It didn’t reflect the V I felt I’d developed, one who helped her friends and followed her curiosity. Worst of all, I have no idea what Cyberpunk 2077 is even trying to say. There’s an overall theme of identity that is dashed by the dissonance between the V you actually play and the V you get in the end; otherwise, I couldn’t tell you what Cyberpunk is trying to do with its beautifully grotesque world. I got a lot out of the side quests and some of the characters, but I got very little out of the overall story.

2+2=5

It also bears a mention: Cyberpunk 2077 is phenomenally buggy. I played a pre-release build that was updated during the review period, and there’s a day-one patch planned as well, but the scale of technical issues is too large to reasonably expect immediate fixes. I encountered some kind of bug on every mission I went on, from more common, funnier ones like characters randomly T-posing to several complete crashes. I didn’t notice much of an improvement after the update, either. In a very late-game, very important fight, the game froze on me–twice. I ended up taking a break out of frustration before attempting, and finally succeeding, the third time.

These bugs, more than any game I’ve played in years, took me out of the experience often. Non-interactable items like cardboard boxes will explode when you interact with something next to them; UI elements will stay on-screen long after they’re meant to, which is only solved by reloading a save; characters will interrupt themselves during proper dialogue sequences by repeating a throwaway line they’d say in the overworld, seriously disrupting key moments; I died once and, upon reloading my last save, found my hacking ability no longer worked, forcing me to roll back to an autosave 10 minutes prior. The list is extensive.

This was the only bug I actually took a screenshot of.This was the only bug I actually took a screenshot of.
This was the only bug I actually took a screenshot of.

The technical problems not only took me out of the game literally but also led me to question whether certain things throughout the game were intentional. It often took me a moment or two to determine whether a visual glitch was supposed to be happening due to V’s cyberware, which is a major part of the story, or if I needed to reload the game. There were a few instances where I couldn’t tell if dialogue or an event had been skipped due to a bug or by design, since there are times where the game will skip you ahead in time as part of a scene. I also found some exploration sequences frustrating because it was incredibly hard to tell if I was just missing the clue I was supposed to find or if it hadn’t popped up at all, and I ended up leaving areas and coming back later on multiple occasions out of confusion and frustration. At least once, I didn’t get a dialogue hint indicating what to do until I left the area and came back.

I was playing on a gaming laptop well above the minimum specs announced for Cyberpunk 2077, while another GameSpot player experienced the same severity and frequency of bugs (though no hard crashes) on an even higher-end desktop PC. Your mileage may vary, but in our experience, the bugs are obtrusive and substantial across the board, often forcing us to reload saves or exit the game entirely. It’s hard to get really into a world you constantly have to leave.

But then it’s hard to get into Cyberpunk 2077’s world in general. So much of it is superficial set dressing, and there’s so much happening all around you–ads going off at all times, gunfights breaking out in the streets, texts coming in about cars you’ll never buy–that a lot of the game feels superfluous. The side quests and the characters they showcase are the shining beacon through the neon-soaked bleakness of Night City, and they give you room to explore the best the core RPG mechanics have to offer. These are what carried me through an otherwise disappointing experience.

Sam & Max Save The World Remastered Review

Nostalgia is a funny thing. When the first episode of Telltale Games’ Sam & Max Save the World debuted in 2006, fans of 1993’s Sam & Max Hit the Road had waited years for the dog and bunny’s return. Now, Save the World is old enough to have built up its own nostalgic fanbase, keen to once again revisit these lovable weirdos. Sam & Max Save the World Remastered isn’t a new game, but the huge visual and mechanical improvements implemented by developer Skunkape Games (a team made up of ex-Telltale folks) make it a pleasure to revisit.

For the uninitiated, Sam & Max Save the World Remastered is about two freelance police agents: Sam, a loquacious, wry dog who acts as de facto leader of the duo, and Max, his psychotic rabbit pal. Across the six episodes included in this remaster, the pair gets caught up in a mass-hypnosis scheme, thwarting various enemies on their way to finally facing the season’s big bad during the finale. While Telltale would eventually become known for its choice-focused narrative experiences like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Sam & Max Save the World is a far more traditional point-and-click adventure game–you talk to people, gather items, and then use those items in clever ways to progress through the story.

Sam & Max Save the World Remastered on Nintendo Switch
Sam & Max Save the World Remastered on Nintendo Switch

Each episode of Save the World follows roughly the same pattern: Sam and Max get a call about a new case in the opening cutscene, and they head out to start asking questions. Each episode is compact, running about two hours and featuring, at most, three locations. Over time, recurring themes and characters emerge, and before long the pair realize that there’s some nefarious connective tissue running throughout all of their cases.

The plot doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, which is a good thing, because the overarching story is a bit of a dud. While some side characters are fun (a chicken actor; a nearby neighbor who changes her job every episode; a giant living statue of Abraham Lincoln), many of the recurring characters are more annoying than amusing. There are only so many times you can talk to a squeaky-voiced child star whose gimmick is that he pees too often before you get tired of him. There are some fun individual moments and plenty of great scenes throughout the game, but most of the good jokes are saved for Sam and Max themselves.

The two heroes are a delight. Sam and Max’s conversations are a mix of bon mots, puns, and allusions to wild adventures. It’s easy to grow attached to Max’s irreverent love of violence and Sam’s unerring devotion to his little buddy, and the game’s script is peppered with fun Easter eggs, meta comments, and absurdist jokes. Both characters are consistently amusing throughout the adventure.

Gallery

The game’s puzzles are, for the most part, enjoyable and clever. They tend to come in groups; once or twice an episode you’ll be given three tasks to complete, all interconnecting in smart ways. The key is to remember that you’re playing a comedy game that follows comedy rules–and many of the solutions end up being pretty funny. Logical leaps are rare in the front half of the game, and while the back half has a few circuitous solutions, there’s nothing too obscure or ridiculous. While it won’t give your brain a full workout, there’s enough here to make you feel smart.

This remastered version of the game has been updated with widescreen display, controller support, uncompressed audio, and drastically overhauled visuals. Sam & Max Save the World wasn’t a looker by 2006 standards, but it’s now gorgeous, with reworked character models and a lighting system that adds a huge amount of depth and personality to the experience. Despite these major upgrades, the original art remains largely intact, and has been polished rather than replaced. Chintzy décor and ugly fonts abound, and you wouldn’t want it any other way–the game’s look and vibe are still unique all these years later. There’s some subtle cel-shading to give characters a more cartoony look, which suits the overall tone perfectly. This is a significant upgrade and an enormous improvement over the flat graphics of the original release. It looks fantastic on Switch, too, although it can look slightly fuzzy in handheld mode.

You’re now in direct control of Sam, rather than guiding him around with a pointer (as was the case in the original release), and it feels much more natural than before. The ability to highlight every object you can interact with by tapping the L button cuts down on frustrating pixel-hunting, and the controls have been streamlined to make this feel like a game built specifically with a controller in mind. You can also play with the touch screen on Switch, if that’s your preference. Clicking and dragging to control Sam is functional, but I switched back to the Joy-Con almost immediately–still, it’s a good option to have.

The game runs beautifully, which is a blessing for anyone who played the original release on Wii or Xbox 360. Load times are short and frame rates are stable, with no hitches or stuttering across the entire six-episode series. All of these changes are very welcome–it’s enough to make you wish that Skunkape could go back and touch up all of Telltale’s old games.

Sam & Max Save the World Remastered on Nintendo Switch
Sam & Max Save the World Remastered on Nintendo Switch

The development team has also changed a few camera angles, added new songs, and even changed the timing on some jokes. Bosco, the local convenience store owner and a major side character, has been re-recorded–he’s a Black man who was previously voiced by a white actor, which has thankfully been rectified–but otherwise the dialogue is unchanged, for better or worse. While the game is mostly funny, some jokes have aged more poorly than others. At times, the game can punch down or lean on stereotypes for the sake of a gag, and while they’re never outright hateful, these lazier jokes don’t sit well next to the game’s more effective absurdist humor. The fact that you’re playing as two gun-toting, trigger-happy cops hits differently now, too, although the characters and situations are all strange and exaggerated enough that it’s easy to disconnect from reality while playing.

In other areas, the game’s advancing age can be kind of charming. The fact that there are jokes about Keanu Reeves being a bad actor certainly date the game, as does the chapter where Max faces off against the US president, presented as a robotic hayseed satire of George W. Bush who is threatening to introduce, among other things, mandatory gun registration. One chapter takes place inside a virtual reality version of the internet; seeing a pastiche of the web that contains no references to social media feels very strange, because things have changed so much over the years. These jokes date the game, but they also give it a keen sense of time and place: the heart of the original game is mostly untouched.

Sam & Max Save the World Remastered is more than just a nostalgia play. The season has held up well and still has plenty of great jokes and clever puzzles that have held up well over time. Even if the overarching plot is weak, and some jokes don’t hit, the titular duo is still a delight, and the smart puzzles are even more enjoyable to solve now that the controls have been improved. This is the definitive version of one of Telltale’s strong early efforts–hopefully Sam & Max Seasons 2 and 3 will receive similar treatment in the future.

Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin Review

The farming/life-sim genre is an increasingly crowded field these days. There is no shortage of games that offer the experience of building a small farm, raising crops and livestock, and making friends and relationships along the way. But every so often, a game in this genre comes along that really turns things on their head, taking well-worn tropes and expectations and making them feel fresh and new. Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin is such a game. It combines an in-depth rice-farming simulation with excellent 2D platforming action and a wonderful atmosphere to make a delightful, fulfilling experience.

Sakuna is a haughty, bratty harvest goddess of the old-timey Japan-inspired world of Yanato. She lives comfortably with her divine peers in the Lofty Realm away from the suffering of mortals below. When a group of hungry mortals stumble into the Lofty Realm looking for food on her watch, she discovers to her horror that they’ve destroyed the offering to the great deity Lady Kamuhitsuki. As punishment, she and the mortals are banished to the Isle of Demons, where she is tasked with cleansing the land of evil forces while eking out a meager subsistence living with her newfound companions. Now, the goddess Sakuna needs to get her hands dirty–and bond with the humans that have lived beneath her–in order to survive.

No Caption Provided

Gallery

The base gameplay of Sakuna is split into two parts: exploration and simulation. The exploration sections have you traversing 2D environments to hunt enemies, collect materials needed for combat and survival, and discover new areas for gathering. The simulation sections task Sakuna with managing the day-to-day labor involved in harvesting a rice crop needed to sustain a family. Engaging in both of these activities is necessary for progress, but you need to decide how to best invest your time. A day-and-night cycle means there’s a constant march onwards through the quite truncated seasons, which affect many things, such as when collected materials spoil, enemies’ strength, which materials can be gathered, what farmwork can be done, and so on. The need to balance activities and manage both item and time resources makes for a gameplay loop that’s interesting and challenging without being too punishing. It also allows for the gradual introduction of new elements as you progress, like additional farming tools and more exploration abilities.

But what makes Sakuna such a unique and memorable experience is just how well-made and in-depth its two core gameplay systems are. If you don’t know the first thing about cultivating and harvesting rice, you will learn a lot about just how intricate and labor-intensive the process is simply from playing Sakuna. Everything about the rice-farming process is detailed and represented in gameplay, starting from tilling the soil to finding ideal kernels, moving on to planting seedlings, managing water levels, pest control, and weeding, to the eventual harvest, threshing, and hulling, all of which Sakuna is directly involved with (and yes, you’ll have to make fertilizer the old-fashioned way, so prepare for lots of poop-scooping and waste compounding). It’s an accurate representation of the entire process and really hammers home the amount of work it takes to make a quality rice crop. And you will want to make quality crops, because the quality of the rice harvest directly impacts Sakuna’s level and stats–plus, additional food eaten during meals gives her beneficial boons during exploration.

The exploration sequences are also superbly done. Sakuna can run, jump, and use her Divine Raiment to grapple onto surfaces and past obstacles and enemies, deftly swinging around the screen to reach gathering and mining spots and hidden treasure chests filled with rare artifacts and soil additives. As you progress, these areas introduce new and interesting obstacles, like wind storms, jagged spikes, rolling rocks, and floating water platforms that require you to use your platforming skills to the fullest to reach hidden nooks and crannies.

But this island is a demonic stronghold teeming with enemies, so Sakuna will often have to put up a fight using her farming implements and Raiment to smack some enemies around. And when we say “smack them around,” we mean it; Sakuna’s combat has a very fun physics system that lets you launch, juggle, and fling enemies around with combinations of normal, special, and Raiment attacks. For example, with a mighty swing of her plough, Sakuna can send one enemy flying into a big group of foes like a bowling ball knocking down pins. Using her Raiment she can grab a large downed enemy and smash them into a wall of spikes or flying enemies. To follow-up, she can then smack a target a few more times with basic combos before they hit the ground, hopefully eliminating them entirely.

Pulling off these big combat plays is a ton of fun, and sending enemies crashing into each other for big damage never stops feeling satisfying. Plus, as Sakuna’s skills on the farm improve, she also learns new combat skills that can be equipped and independently strengthened, giving you a growing supply of fresh moves to add to your fighting repertoire. While the big enemy groups and high-health, high-damage bosses might be intimidating to players who aren’t a deft hand at action games, Sakuna is quite merciful on this front as losing all of your health simply resets you back to when you first entered the area. And if things are simply too hard for you, you can opt to focus more on the rice-farming part of the game instead since the next crop you harvest will also raise Sakuna’s stats, making exploration a fair bit easier.

Great gameplay would be enough to warrant a recommendation, but Sakuna’s visual style and overall pleasant mood gives the game a warmth and beauty that really helps it stand out from the crowd. The visuals evoke a fantasy historical Japan that is filled with awe-inspiring beauty–I would frequently find myself sitting in my rice field at night, staring up at the starry sky as the wind blew through the trees, or admiring the detail of raindrops splashing on water bubbles as I went to explore in the midst of a storm. The story and characters also add greatly to Sakuna’s charm, as this ragtag group of peasants-and-divine-beings grows into a close family that helps each other out. Listening to dinner conversations where foreign missionary woman Myrthe describes her hardships as a trial from God, or Tauemon describing his upbringing and misadventures adds a lot of life and connection to these characters.

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That isn’t to say that Sakuna is flawless, however. As in any game where you have separate, very distinct gameplay styles, finding a balance between them can be tough at times, and Sakuna doesn’t always succeed in that regard. There will be times when a bunch of new areas open up that you want to explore, but you’re restricted by the necessity to tend to the farm’s needs at a particular season. Likewise, there will be times like mid-winter when there’s not much to do on the farm, which is a more ideal time for exploration–though because gathering items change with seasons, what you get from exploring in winter might not be what you want for your farming and tool-making endeavors. And sometimes you just have to wait for things to happen on the farm while there isn’t anything particularly interesting going on in exploration, either–perhaps you’re stymied on a tough area you want to get a stat boost to help clear–and you just have to replay old areas and kill time gathering random stuff until the harvest comes due. The worst is when the clock creeps up on you; enemies gain a massive strength boost at night, so seeing the sun set just as you’re on the cusp of clearing a stage mission or reaching the exit can be a massive bummer, as can having half your spoils get spoiled.

Even if it’s a little rough around the edges, Sakuna is a genuine gem. Its rewarding and engaging sim gameplay, exciting freeform combat, and just the way it feels like a warm and comforting experience while you play it are what makes it one of the best life-sim style games to release in quite some time. Whether you’re big into action, simulation, or both, Sakuna’s journey of redemption is one well worth taking.

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