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Death Stranding Director’s Cut Review – The Limits Of The Dead

Just like learning how to bake bread or mastering a language, going back to Death Stranding was one of those things I had always intended to do during lockdown, but never did. Returning to a gray, hazy, hostile world of death and human misery just seemed like the worst possible choice for living through a real-world pandemic. I should never have hesitated. In the face of all of Death Stranding’s violence, its dead things, its surreal horror, and the bleakest, salted-earth portrayal of the post-apocalypse, there has always been this strong mote of hope and love and bonding and connection that’s never been more necessary. If nothing else, Death Stranding: Director’s Cut is the best excuse to return to the valley of the shadow of death, and find the grim beauty waiting there. What the new features and content bring to the table is simply making that return easier and more welcoming than ever.

Death Stranding was originally released for the PlayStation 4 in November 2019. In our original review, which you can read here in full, Kallie Plagge awarded it a 9/10, saying that “Death Stranding is a hard game to absorb. There are many intertwining threads to its plot, and silly names, corny moments, and heavy exposition belie an otherwise very simple message. That comes through much more clearly in the game’s more mundane moments, when you find a desperately-needed ladder left behind by another player or receive a letter from an NPC thanking you for your efforts. It’s positive without ignoring pain; in fact, it argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living. It’s a game that requires patience, compassion, and love, and it’s also one we really need right now.”

More to the point, however, Director’s Cut is a bit of a misnomer. Despite the appeal of an auteur like Kojima taking a more proactive approach, tweaking dialogue and text files or adding scenes, nothing terribly germane to the plot, story, character development, or the way the world is presented has been messed with here. This is still largely the same game it was in 2019: a post-apocalyptic odyssey to reconnect the disparate cities of America at all costs, with our taciturn, faithless hero, Sam Porter-Bridges, facing the literal and metaphorical ghosts of America along the way. That’s just the very tip of an expansive iceberg of a plot that toys around with metaphysics, the role of politics in our lives, the inherent nihilism of fundamentalist thinking, the social contract deteriorating, and lots more. All this is held up by a primary gameplay loop that has you playing postman to the entire country–mostly on foot–and across varied, melancholy-inducing terrain. Still, all of that was in the game we got two years ago, and by and large, the Director’s Cut is the same kind of enhanced experience Ghost of Tsushima’s Director’s Cut was.

That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not a big thing. Newcomers and those starting from scratch will benefit the most. The Director’s Cut features a much more elegant set of introductory challenges, clearer explanations of core mechanics, and some helpful bits of gear like the Support Skeleton and the new debilitating Maser Gun are available early on, taking a lot of the aggravation out of the game’s first few episodes. There is an AR firing range allowing you to test out any new weaponry you get against static targets or on bots who function like the MULE enemies, which was especially helpful in letting me finally get the timing down for parrying using the Strand rope.

All that is paired with the expected PS5 perks. The graphical upgrade to 60fps is near flawless, and despite having two modes for Quality and Performance, both managed to stick to that frame rate target, with Quality mode only running into issues when getting caught by BTs, or getting caught in a voidout. Load times are virtually eliminated, which makes getting back to business after said voidout much easier to deal with. Once again, the haptics on the DualSense are the MVP here. You can feel every little step or movement Sam takes, and the pressure and difficulty involved in trying to balance him when he’s carrying a heavy payload is absolutely wonderful here. The sensation adds an extremely effective layer of immersion to the experience.

There is, in fact, some new story content, the most prominent of which is tied to Sam discovering an abandoned factory/science facility early on, with new areas opening up as you progress through the game. It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, the new story being told is a powerful one that branches out of the core game’s explorations of what America actually is, what we’ve lost along the way, and the best way to get it back. And it lays out the question of what we leave behind for our children and if we can even atone for the sins of previous generations in any way that matters. The problem here is getting that story in full involves a hell of a lot of stealth, and while there’s always been some of that in the larger game, this clearly feels a little too much like the game nudging and winking at Metal Gear fans, in a game that is built mechanically and tonally different.

That goes for a lot of the new features, like the Maser Gun, cargo catapult, Buddy Bots, and racetrack. All of these can definitely make the game easier–the Buddy Bot being able to cart resources back to cities on your behalf is a real time-saver, in particular–but it also changes the focus of the game a bit from the work that goes into connecting America again, to basically pointing at circles on the map, and commanding a computer to do the work for us. That’s especially ironic since that’s literally how the in-game world created its former postal worker antagonists altogether. The game shifts to being a lopsided RTS in these moments instead of, well, whatever you’d describe Death Stranding as.

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Two years after having beaten it, I’m still unsure of what I’d actually classify Death Stranding as, in terms of genre. Kojima might want to make “strand game” a thing, but that’s still a little too loose in terms of what’s been accomplished here. And yet, it’s arguable the game’s greatest strengths come from that indefinable nature, of the action and mechanics being bound by the story being told, and not vice versa. The beauty of the game actually lies in the difficulty of traversing the American wastelands, burdened with all of the nation’s hopes and dreams, and with death itself physically manifesting on all sides. It comes off a little disjointed by taking too much of that out of Sam’s hands, even while it admittedly makes the game and its numerous gameplay elements less obtuse. Thankfully, as mentioned, none of the new content changes what Death Stranding ultimately is and becomes.

Even having said that, it is undeniable that returning to the world of Death Stranding after the year we’ve all had was affecting in ways I never anticipated going in. It didn’t strike me the first time just how much positive feedback the game gives for every little thing Sam does. It didn’t strike me the first time just how accurate the game would be in how isolation makes every interaction with a live human being into an event. The hope, the despair, the determination of it all just plain hits differently now, and in ways that make the game one to experience even if you don’t end up liking it enough to stick with it for dozens of hours. The Director’s Cut still does an admirable job goosing up that experience for maximum immersion. Even while trying to nudge itself towards something more approachable, there is still nothing quite like this game.

Sable Review – Sandy Pilgrimage

The titular Sable is part of a nomadic tribe known as the Ibexii. Like every child who comes of age on the planet of Midden, Sable must leave her clan behind and embark on a rite of passage called The Gliding. This involves venturing out into the wider world on a pilgrimage to learn more about themselves, the land they inhabit, and the people that populate Midden’s sun-scorched sand dunes. Like those before her, Sable is bestowed a hoverbike and a Gliding Stone before leaving, the latter of which allows her to float through the air using an energy bubble born from ancient technology. With this, the stage is set for an open-world adventure that’s equal parts relaxing and engrossing.

At its core, Sable is a game about exploration, with its mechanics and overall design all feeding into this central philosophy. Upon departing the Ibexii camp for the first time, you’re free to straddle your hoverbike and venture off towards any of the four corners of Sable’s vast but manageably-sized map. There are quests to complete along the way that maintain some semblance of order, but this is a freeform open-world game that disregards the genre’s traditional objective structure. Generally, your compass will point you in the vague direction of your current quest, while at other times you’ll be given directions that encourage you to discover locations for yourself. You can set your own waypoints by using the map or by finding a vantage point and using the Navigator to mark potential points of interest, and all of these are displayed on the compass that encircles your hoverbike. Crucially, you never have to stare at a mini-map or a big objective marker as you skim inches above the sand, and this keeps your eyes planted firmly on what’s in front of you.

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Now Playing: Sable Presentation | Tribeca Games Spotlight 2021

If you’re heading towards a particular location with your eyes on the horizon, you’re likely to spot other distractions along the way, whether it’s a plume of smoke billowing into the sky and hinting at signs of life or the battered husk of a crashed spaceship. This kind of organic discovery is often found lacking in open-world games that rely on pre-existing points of interest and maps scattered with markers, and it sets Sable apart as you chart the world yourself by venturing towards whatever catches your eye. Midden is a fascinating world to uncover, too, with small pockets of civilization nestled in between the serene desolation of its sprawling desert. There are dilapidated temples engulfed by sand, a graveyard full of gargantuan animal bones, and an eerie forest shrouded in perpetual darkness–to name just a few of the sights you’ll come across throughout your travels.

Sable’s striking and distinctive visual design is a significant contributor to this wondrous sense of discovery, painting the landscape with clean black lines that accentuate details where they matter, letting those that don’t fade into the background as the linework loosens up. Its cel-shaded art style is inspired by the late French artist Jean Giraud, and each frame looks like it could’ve been lifted from one of the science-fiction comic books he illustrated under the Moebius pseudonym. There’s a day/night cycle that substantially alters the mood, as the vibrant and warm colors of a sweltering afternoon are gradually drained out and replaced by the muted blues and oranges of midnight. You only need to glance at a couple of screenshots to see how gorgeous it looks, and it’s even better in motion. Sable’s stop motion-esque animation is evocative of both animated movies and one of those old flipbooks, capturing the spirit of childhood adventure.

Breath of the Wild is another inspiration that permeates throughout Sable, from its focus on exploration to the way you traverse the world. Almost every surface is scalable; the only thing regulating how far you can climb is a stylized stamina meter that floats around your head. This freedom liberates you to explore until your body isn’t physically able to, with Sable’s primary challenge revolving around finding the most efficient route to scale each obstacle. With the Gliding Stone in tow, you’re also able to soar across chasms and weave past jagged outcroppings and ancient structures. Platforming can be a tad finicky at times–whether it’s because the camera is blocked or because it takes Sable more than a few attempts to attach to a specific surface–but for the most part, this free-climbing adds an engaging and satisfying challenge to a game without any combat or fail states.

There’s also some light puzzle-solving involved that’ll have you rerouting power to create platforms and rotating enormous relics to access locked tombs. None of this is particularly taxing, and some of the puzzles are rather bland, but they’re generally quite short and do offer worthwhile rewards. You can always ignore these detours completely, of course, since Sable’s quest design adheres to the same ethos as its traversal, giving you the flexibility to approach it however you want. There’s a loose end goal to aim for, but how and when you reach that point is entirely up to you.

Part of The Gliding and its coming-of-age journey is all about discovering who you want to be when you finally return to your tribe. Masks are a part of everyday life in Midden, with each one representing a different profession that comes with its own cultural meanings and source of pride. By completing various quests, impressing people, or helping them out of sticky situations, you’ll gradually earn badges relating to these vocations. Playing hide and seek with a group of kids, for example, will earn you an entertainer badge, while trading with merchants will net you a merchant badge. Once you own three of one particular type of badge, you can visit one of the mysterious Mask Casters and they’ll craft them into a mask. The game ends once you’ve returned to the Ibexii tribe with one or more of these masks, whether you’ve crafted a single one or the entire collection.

Some of the quests adopt the rote “collect x amount of y” template, but at least gathering these materials is more interesting than usual since the game leans on its strong sense of exploration. Other quests are more elaborate, yet the strength of Sable’s quests lies in their cohesion and propensity to flow into one another. You might be asked to deliver three bugs to a town in the north, only to become entangled in an investigation to find out who stole the town’s power generator once you get there. From there, your quest log is likely to expand, and since there’s no binary distinction between “primary” quests and “side” quests, it all feels important.

The writing is a strong point, too, namely because it’s relatively understated. These characters are just regular people going about their lives, and this is reflected in their personable dialogue. Conversations are warm and oftentimes funny, while Sable’s inner voice sees the world through a kind and descriptive lens that breathes life into the perpetually masked. The presence of dialogue choices also gives you an opportunity to tailor her personality in small but poignant ways. This might take the form of reassuring one of the Ibexii children, who’s scared of losing you to the wider world, or proclaiming that you’ve never felt freer when meeting a fellow adventurer.

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Unfortunately, Sable isn’t without its faults. These are mostly technical or related to the UI, such as the fact that it’s impossible to keep track of merchants. There is a fast travel system, so you can at least dart between different settlements at the click of a finger, but finding the right vendor feels like an unnecessary chore at times. When it comes to technical issues, performance is the main culprit. On the PC version, slowdown and stuttering are frequent nuisances throughout, especially when cruising the open world on your hoverbike. Developer Shedworks says it’s working on a patch that should be available in a few weeks, so there is at least a silver lining.

Bounding over sand dunes on the hoverbike is a joyous experience despite these distractions. Getting back on it after dismounting can be needlessly time-consuming, however. You can recall the bike as though it were a horse, but rather than teleport wherever you’re not looking, it has to physically make its way towards you. Sometimes it simply doesn’t show up, while other times you’ll find it snagged on a piece of geometry. It’s easy enough to find using the compass, but having to fetch the bike yourself presents a hassle where there shouldn’t be one.

Sable is a little rough around the edges, then, yet these shortcomings are far outweighed by its numerous strengths. This is a relaxing adventure that’s both familiar and quite unlike anything else. It gives you the freedom to approach things at your own pace–in your own way–while managing to dispel any notions of aimlessness. Even if you don’t have a particular objective in mind, you’re guaranteed to discover new sights and sounds by hopping on your hoverbike and simply exploring. It’s the antithesis to most open-world design, where the onus is on getting you to the next point of interest as soon as possible, and so it stands out even if you remove its beautiful art style from the equation. Sable is methodical, introspective, comforting, and fully deserving of your time.

Kena: Bridge Of Spirits Review – Don’t Fear The Reaper

In Kena: Bridge of Spirits, everyday items are imbued with new, unseen emotional significance. A wooden mask is a link to the spirit of the person for whom it was made. Objects like a construction hammer or a box filled with food are tied to memories of people who have been lost. Locations that were once the sites of vibrant and happy times are scarred with the pain and trauma suffered within them.

Looking at common things with new eyes is a running theme of Kena, and that theme often applies to its gameplay as well. Though the game is filled with some fairly common action-adventure genre tropes–it has melee combat that feels akin to titles such as Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order or even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, climbing sections similar to Uncharted or Tomb Raider, platforming that recalls games such as Ratchet and Clank, and puzzles like what you might see in The Legend of Zelda–it manages to combine a familiar approachability with some fresh spins on the ideas. Combined with emotional, character-driven storytelling, some tough-but-excellent fights, and mechanics that make the world feel alive around you, Kena is an exciting, often heartbreaking journey that will make you want to explore every corner and crevice to see all that you can.

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The story and world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits center on a village beset by tragedy. Its inhabitants are all gone, wiped out by misfortune, and their pain has physically poisoned the once-vibrant land around it. That pain has drawn Kena, a young spirit guide, to seek out the trauma at its center and heal it. Her link to the spirit realm allows her to help the ghosts of the village find peace, and in so doing, she’s able to push back the corruption that has gripped the land, restoring it to its former glory.

In practical terms, you do that by wandering the large, semi-open space of the village and its surrounding environs, battling the corrupted spirits of both the people who once lived there and the nature their pain has twisted. Most every interaction comes down to a combination of combat and puzzle-solving. Your goal is usually to beat back a host of enemies, freeing up the ability to destroy a nearby corrupted “heart”–a sort of evil flower bulb–with a blast of spirit energy you can pulse from Kena with the touch of a button. Kill the heart, and the corruption recedes, along with the corrupted enemies.

Combat itself is mostly familiar, with Kena fighting off enemies with the use of her spirit staff. You get light and heavy attacks you can combo together, but even in the normal difficulty, enemies hit hard and can knock you off your game if you’re not paying attention. Like similar action games, you have a dodge that can get you out of trouble most of the time, and you can generate a spirit shield with limited power that will stop attacks. Take too many hits, and the shield breaks, sending you flying and dealing you damage, but if you can time your block just right, you’ll parry an enemy and open them up to a counter-attack.

Both Kena’s puzzles and its combat add a twist in the form of the Rot, which are little spirit pals you can find in the environment. The Rot are a bit like Pikmin or the minions seen in games such as Overlord. In combat, you can send them to attack and distract enemies, allowing you to get in a few free hits or attack a weak point, and they’re essential to making hearts vulnerable in the middle of fights, which can allow you to stop enemies from respawning so you can advance.

The Rot are the thing that makes Kena stand apart from similar games, and finding them, powering them up, and utilizing them effectively adds a tactical layer to fights that goes beyond just dodging and parrying. Since the Rot are all pretty small, you need to work up their courage to bring them into the battle. As you deal damage and kill enemies, you fill a meter that gives you a Rot action, and you can deploy them in a fight with a single button or use them to power up one of your attacks for a big hit. The Rot are also crucial for taking advantage of the environment–you have to send them at hearts in order to neutralize them, and the only way to heal Kena is to expend a Rot action.

Working with the Rot in combat forces you to constantly be on the attack and to pay attention to your environment. You need to mentally log the location of hearts that spawn enemies and the items you use to heal, and it’s often essential that you knock out smaller, weaker enemies to build Rot charges so you can distract and take down bigger, tougher ones. Deciding how best to use the Rot in combat keeps you balancing a big-picture view of a fight with the smaller, more intense moments of parrying a big hit or sniping a weak point.

Occasionally, the combination of those elements can be a bit annoying, because it’s easy to blow a single dodge or block and have failure cascade on you, or to accidentally send the Rot to attack the wrong enemy as things get hectic. With some bosses, you’ll probably need to die a few times just to figure out how badly they’re capable of wrecking you. But death isn’t the point, and at least with PlayStation 5’s lickity-split load times, the game is always quick about getting you back into the action with as little punishment as possible. It also offers a story mode difficulty, which seems like a very good addition, given how deceptively difficult some of its fights can be. Kena’s combat is generally tough and exciting, executing well on familiar dodge-and-parry mechanics, but it’s the addition of the Rot and the versatility in how you can use them that really makes battles in Kena feel fun and intelligent.

That also goes for the game’s various puzzles. Outside of combat, Rot follow you around or pop up on ledges and bridges as you move through the environment, and can be sent to do contextual actions in the world, like moving climbable objects to help you reach a high platform. Kena does a good job of combining the need to give the Rot commands with smart uses of Kena’s abilities, creating situations in which solutions need you to think about what you can do with the unlockable bow or platform-levitating bombs, as well as what the Rot can do to alter the environment.

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Where Kena nails the balance is in providing you with tons of puzzles that mostly reward your observation skills, without overly taxing your ability to solve them. Most of the time, spotting something the Rot can move or seeing an object you can interact with using spirit energy is enough to illuminate the path forward. You might be climbing along a wall and see a less-obvious spot where you can jump down, and every time, noticing something like this will take you to a reward.

The only drawback is that, with the game hinging so much on observation, it’s very easy to miss the one item that would point you in the right direction. One particular puzzle, which required shooting several torches in a specific order, had me wandering the area trying to figure it out for a good 10 minutes before I realized how simple the solution really was, but that I hadn’t caught on to the single-use clue the game had included to show me what to do. Mostly, though, these puzzles are just difficult enough to make you feel smart for catching on. Kena is also brimming with collectibles, including Rot spirits hidden in the environment and hats to customize them, and while chasing those items is largely inessential, the addition of all those little side paths and tiny rewards encourages you to explore and lose yourself in Kena’s world.

And it is a beautiful world to explore, thanks to phenomenal art direction and an excellent, immersive score, made more so by the stories of the spirits found within it. Developer Ember Labs has its beginnings in animation, and the game takes full advantage of that background with cute characters and gorgeous cutscenes that help to invest you even further in uncovering what has happened in the village and setting it right. You can’t save these people, but you can help them move on and forgive themselves.

In each section of the game, you venture out to find one particular tormented spirit and help them achieve peace, and your journey through the location is all about piecing together the story of who these people are and what became of them. In each, you’re not just helping free a human spirit who has been corrupted and twisted into a powerful and dangerous boss by their trauma–you’re also helping the spirits of the people who loved them but cannot reach them. The interactions with the characters you find in each section of the game helps imbue the areas in and around the village with a character of their own, and despite the fact that the place has been all but destroyed, you can feel the life that once thrived there.

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What’s missing from the story, though, is Kena herself. The game hints that some tragedy in Kena’s past has scarred her, much like the spirits she sets out to help. Near the climax of the story, the game digs into some of Kena’s motivations and history but wraps things up so quickly and neatly that it feels like some aspect of her tale might have been cut. Kena is more or less in the same place at the end of the story as at the beginning, and in a game where so much development is given to the stories of the inhabitants of the village, the attention paid to the protagonist feels anemic by comparison.

The act of meeting and understanding all those other characters is powerful, though. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is ultimately a game about making those connections, just like it’s about making a connection with the game world around you through the Rot. It centers on characters who tried valiantly but failed to help one another, and what dealing with that pain did to them. It’s about exploring a world and seeing what it once was, and helping to restore it again. And while Kena: Bridge of Spirits is full of familiar-feeling combat and exploration, its ability to find different ways to look at those ideas makes for a beautiful, emotional, and exciting journey.

Lost Judgment Review — Back To School

Like most good detective stories, Lost Judgment begins with the ghastly discovery of a maggot-infested corpse. A single homicide is merely the tip of the iceberg, of course, but the unusual circumstances surrounding the dead body’s discovery set the stage for another compelling mystery for private investigator Takayuki Yagami to solve. The first Judgment began in a similar fashion, presenting itself as a Yakuza spin-off that was nevertheless overly familiar due to its penchant for delving into the criminal theatrics Rya ga Gotoku Studio is known for. Yagami’s latest adventure still dips its feet into the deep end of the criminal underworld, but Lost Judgment distances itself from its Yakuza-flavored origins with much more regularity than its predecessor, resulting in a better and more distinct game that’s still tinged with an overt sense of deja vu.

This begins right from the off, as the first hour or so is spent traversing the well-worn streets of Kamurocho. Revisiting the bustling red-light district for the umpteenth time still doesn’t grow stale thanks to its lively atmosphere and intricate visual design. It’s a place full of fond memories and there’s a pleasant sense of comfort in its familiarity, yet it’s hard not to feel relieved when Yagami’s latest case takes you south of Tokyo and into the port city of Yokohama. The fictional district of Isezaki Ijincho was first introduced in last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon and makes its return in Lost Judgment relatively untouched. Based on the real-life Yokohama district of Isezakichō, it’s a bigger urban sprawl than Kamurocho but still maintains the same density, from the busy streets of Isezaki Road to the various storefronts and eateries located throughout the district.

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Now Playing: First 16 Minutes of Lost Judgment PS5 Gameplay

Step through the automatic doors of a Poppo store and you’ll be greeted by a short electronic tune that announces your arrival. The magazine aisle is stacked with lifestyle magazines, manga, and cookbooks, while the refrigerators at the back of the store are filled with assorted snacks, from onigiri and Bento lunch sets to a dizzying array of drinks including Suntory green tea and BOSS coffee. Elsewhere, you can head to the bar district to find each cozy hangout stocked with real-world alcohol, while passing beneath the Paifang in Chinatown will lead you to restaurants adorned with dragons and golden guardian lions, as residents converse under a baroque pavilion.

There are Club Sega arcades where you can play the likes of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, Space Harrier, and even the ill-advised Sonic fighting game: Sonic the Fighters. If none of these tickle your fancy there’s also another sequel to the pseudo-House of the Dead sequel introduced in Judgment. This time it’s called Hama of the Dead, a fully-featured lightgun shooter that sees zombies invade the streets of Ijincho that’s reminiscent of the undead hordes shuffling through Kamurocho in Yakuza: Dead Souls–another series spin-off. Outside of the hypnotic lights of the arcade, you can also play shogi and mahjong, battle against AI opponents in a Mario Party-esque VR board game, compete in drone races, hit home runs at the batting cages, or simply befriend the neighborhood cats. This is all par for the course in an RGG Studio game, but the sheer breadth of diversions is still staggering, especially when so many of them are genuinely enjoyable.

And this love of distractions bleeds into Lost Judgment’s main narrative, too. With PI work in Kamurocho drying up, Yagami and best friend/business partner Masaharu Kaito get a call from their old pals Fumiya Sugiura and Makoto Tsukumo about some work in Yokohama. The case sounds delicate but easy enough for a seasoned pro–revolving around bullying allegations at a local high school–but it gradually expands into an intricate web that focuses on the frailties of the justice system and how law and order can be so easily manipulated. Heavy themes such as bullying, suicide, and sexual battery are handled with the deft touch required of such topics, and it even does an excellent job of making you feel empathy for characters that find themselves on the wrong side of the law by shrouding everything in grey.

Moments of levity between the core cast of friends ensure that it’s not always completely bleak, although Kaito takes more of a backseat this time around, leaving Yagami to carry most of the emotional load. Fortunately, he’s still an endearing and immediately likable protagonist, with a strict set of morals and a steely determination that’s only offset by his quick wit. He doesn’t need to wrestle with as many demons as he did in the first game, and his character development is surprisingly light, but Yagami is no less delightful to be around.

Lost Judgment is heartfelt and sentimental at times, too, even if these moments can be a tad melodramatic–but that’s to be expected. If there are any failings with the story, it’s that the script can be unnecessarily verbose at times, constantly regurgitating information you’re already well aware of. Aside from this, however, the core mystery is frequently gripping, with plenty of unsuspecting twists and turns, a devious villain, and intense moments that guarantee you’ll be perched on the edge of your seat for the long run.

The high school setting goes a long way towards differentiating Judgment from other RGG Studio games as well. The main throughline eventually leaves the school behind, but that doesn’t mean you have to. In order to stay at the school and continue his investigation, Yagami becomes an outside advisor for the school’s Mystery Club. Students in this extracurricular clique usually sit around reading Sherlock Holmes stories and other mystery novels, but with Yagami involved they set their sights a lot higher. It doesn’t take long before you’re infiltrating various student groups in order to unveil information about a nefarious figure known as The Professor. This elaborate side case doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, but with the setting and characters often overlapping, it all feels interconnected and cohesive, no matter how disparate both cases are from each other.

You start by helping students perfect their craft in the dance club, which features a rhythm mini-game and a pop-and-locking journey to the Nationals. After this, there’s the robotics club where you help engineer a fleet of robots and compete in a competition for territory control. There’s an entirely new combat style for your fights in the boxing gym, that also comes complete with its own separate upgrade tree and a plethora of opponents for you to jab and hook into submission. You can also give Tony Hawk a run for his money by getting involved in a power struggle between two rival skateboarding crews, or rule the road in a biker gang that holds high-speed death races. Aside from adding a veritable bucket load of variety, most of these school cases are surprisingly comprehensive. It’s easy to soak up hours finetuning your robot or barreling through the competition in the eSports club, and each one features an engaging conspiracy for you to uncover that feeds into an overarching narrative. And this is on top of the usual slew of absurd side missions RGG Studio excels at.

Unfortunately, Yagami’s investigative repertoire is mostly unchanged from the first game. Tailing missions are mercifully less frequent this time around, and those that do exist are slightly shorter, which does alleviate some of their arduousness. There are still plenty of on-rails chase sequences, though, which are as monotonous and stale as before. Occasionally you’ll need to search scenes for clues, but this process is little more than an ostentatious pixel hunt, and there are no fail states involved when you have to present evidence or engage in lines of questioning, so these moments lack any real player agency. Parkour is a new addition that sees you scaling pipes and leaping across gaps to reach places Yagami isn’t supposed to be. There are also a few instances of rudimentary stealth, but these sections are so stiflingly linear that it essentially holds your hand to the point where you’re barely even playing. You’re still here to accompany Yagami rather than deduce anything yourself.

Kaito's drip remains immaculate
Kaito’s drip remains immaculate

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That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to kick people’s teeth in, however. Yagami is still adept at his own curious brand of kung-fu, with both the Crane and Tiger styles returning from the first game. Snake style is a new addition that specializes in disarming enemies and countering attacks. All three styles are ostensibly designed for specific situations–Crane excels against crowds, while Tiger is used to deal heavy damage to a single target–but this isn’t a strict rule and mostly comes down to personal preferences and how much you want to shake things up. Combat is as hard-hitting and satisfying as ever, particularly once you throw in some devastating EX moves, and it also feels surprisingly fresh off the back of Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s shift to turn-based combat.

Lost Judgment improves on its predecessor by cutting down on some of the more tedious elements of its design rather than outright changing the mechanics to make the investigative side of the equation more engaging. In this sense, it’s disappointing that it doesn’t lean into what makes Judgment unique compared to the Yakuza series and instead remains at its best when sticking close to those origins. The story is compelling with an endearing cast of characters, the sheer amount of stuff to do is astounding, and there’s still an inherent joy that comes from pummelling the city’s delinquents into the ground. But it’s hard not to feel disappointed that you still feel like a passenger when it breaks away from the Yakuza mould. If this is indeed our last time with Yagami and co., then it’s one to cherish. There will just always be a nagging feeling that this was a missed opportunity to do something truly special.

Toem Review: Look At This Photograph

Toem begins when your nana gifts you a camera as you head off to see the “Toem” phenomenon. She nearly shows you her own photo from when she did the same thing at your age, but hastily hides it. Seeing the Toem phenomenon is presented as a rite of passage, and something you really just need to experience for yourself. She never describes exactly what Toem is, just that it’s spectacular and life-changing. But maybe what she’s really remembering is the journey to see it.

Most of Toem is essentially a series of photo puzzles. When you first journey away from home, you learn that you can collect stamps on your community card by performing acts of kindness for townspeople (which almost always involve a camera, somehow) or fulfilling photo challenges. You might be asked to find a cartoonishly shady character hanging around town, or to point a lighthouse keeper in the direction of boats that need help using your zoom lens. Collecting enough stamps gets you a free bus pass to the next area. It’s a simple, clever construct that creates a broad space for different types of puzzle challenges.

All of this is presented in a stark black-and-white style that feels boldly minimalist. The view is isometric in a way that often limits your ability to see all of your surroundings, so you’ll look from behind the camera lens to get a better view of things. The interplay between these views is constant, and despite a sparse visual style and monochrome presentation, it never feels confusing. Everything is perfectly readable in both views, which is a testament to the strength of the art design.

With a concept like this it would be easy for puzzles to become over-reliant on forced perspective, making two pieces of the background join together in some way to make them look like one object. That isn’t the case. This is first and foremost a cozy game, so the challenges are never outrageously tricky. Usually they’re more like visual riddles requiring you to suss out what a person means by their request and how the surrounding environment can help you find it for them.

Occasionally, though, a puzzle will be obscure or poorly explained. The worst is when you’re certain you know what the answer is, but not how to complete it in the way the game wants. Sometimes a piece of dialogue explaining the puzzle, which may have given a clue, cannot be repeated and isn’t marked the same way in your logbook. And while Toem is very open-ended–you can pretty much collect the all-important stamps in whatever order you wish–there are occasional times when one task is obviously acting as a gatekeeper for others. Getting stuck on one of these, however temporarily, can be frustrating.

When you first arrive in a new area, you’ll be absolutely inundated with new requests. The environments are designed with a natural circular flow, so as you get the lay of the land you’ll find more people, unlock new areas, and fulfill requests. There’s a natural rhythm to walking around town, spotting new things you hadn’t spotted before and grabbing photos, and then repeating the loop to do it again. Often you’ll find yourself getting a new request and having a “eureka!” moment, remembering something conspicuous you had seen on your last trip around. I made a habit of taking photos of anything that seemed out of place or visually interesting, just to be prepared.

Exploring the different areas also gives you an ever-growing collection of cassette tapes you can play on your Hikelady. Toem cycles through these by itself, but you can pick one to play as well. The soundtrack is soothing and inviting, with a variety of musical and instrumental styles to represent the various areas. You have limited control over playback, though, and will have to manually select one track at a time instead of creating any kind of playlist or blacklisting songs that aren’t your fancy. The catchy tunes usually fit the mood well enough on their own without fussing with the controls.

There’s a light equipment system at play in Toem. Sometimes you’ll need to wear a particular hat to gain access to an area, or wear a certain type of footwear to use a special ability. Most of the equipment is purely cosmetic and the game clearly signals when it has an actual gameplay function. Fiddling with your equipment is only slightly and occasionally tedious, since it doesn’t come up often. It’s not much of a hassle, but it does slightly interrupt the soothing experience when you’re in an area that requires costume changes.

No Caption Provided

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The story themes in Toem are delivered with the lightest of light touches. You’re encouraged to go out and see the world, and in an abstract way, it seems to resemble a gentle coming-of-age story about a kid’s first trip away from home. While it’s ostensibly about seeing the beauty of the world through a camera lens, it’s open-minded about the forms that beauty can take. You’re not limited to nature or wildlife–though both of those play a part. You’ll find something worthwhile in the way kids play in the woods, a salty old fisherman on a dock, or graffiti along the sides of buildings in a cityscape. It’s a very silly and whimsical game on the whole, but those moments make it feel like it has something to say about appreciating your surroundings, whatever they might be.

Toem is a slight game–just around three to four hours–which keeps it from overstaying its welcome. Going back through every area to collect every last photo for your collection will extend its playtime, but on the whole it’s just short and sweet.

When you reach Toem, the event itself, it really does feel spectacular in the context of the game. More important, though, is what it represents. Toem is a simple, cute fable about growing up and engaging with the world. And like the phenomenon, it’s really best if you see it for yourself.

The Artful Escape Review – Nowhere Nephew

The Artful Escape is a visual treat–a platforming journey that takes players on a journey from Earth to the galaxies beyond and renders every location with gorgeous care. Evoking a variety of influences, from the artist Charlie Immer to the bright aesthetics of Lisa Frank, The Artful Escape captures the sheer cinematic thrill of watching your helicopter explode in a Call of Duty mission or falling off a cliff in a Naughty Dog set-piece, but transplants the action to a voyage that goes far beyond the realm of the real. It’s gentler, too, telling a story about learning how to be who you really are, and not who someone else expects you to be. There’s no violence to be found here; just easygoing platforming, low-pressure musical riffing, and adventure gaming that goes heavy on the dialogue and omits the puzzles entirely.

As the game begins, you are Francis Vendetti, a teen in a leather jacket, chunky boots, and eyewear that could be steampunk goggles or the perfect circle glasses that John Lennon made iconic. Francis is sitting on a bench on a cliff and the first prompt we see instructs us “To strum a folk ballad about the toil of a miner’s life, hold X.” It’s immediately pretentious, and that’s intentional. Francis is the nephew of Johnson Vendetti, who is a legend in the world of The Artful Escape. In Calypso, the small town where Francis has lived his whole life, his uncle is a hometown boy who made good. But “Press X to sing about miners” is not who Francis is at all. It rings hollow (and it should) because Francis is attempting to be someone he isn’t. But his first performance as a musician is scheduled for tomorrow, and Francis will be expected to perform that false identity for everyone he knows. Francis will grow as a character over The Artful Escape’s six-hour runtime, but this gameplay will remain the same. You spend a lot of time in this game holding X to strum on your guitar.

Then Francis meets Violetta, a punky girl with a bad attitude and an Edna Mode haircut. Violetta seems to see something in Francis and tells him to seek out Lightman’s–ostensibly a store in Calypso. But Francis has lived in Calypso his whole life and knows there’s no such place. Doesn’t matter–Violetta is off and Francis heads home to get some sleep before his concert the next day. It turns out Francis didn’t need to find Lightman’s. Instead, Lightman, an aging musician voiced by Carl Weathers, comes to him, taking Francis to a spaceship called The Lung and sweeping him up in an intergalactic voyage. He promises Francis will be back in time to play his concert.

When Francis leaves Earth behind he leaves folk music behind, too. In space, he can be someone else, someone new, and hopefully, someone closer to who he really is. This journey takes the younger Vendetti to a variety of planets with just as many environments which he will platform across, bouncing off unidentifiable launching pads and reaching improbable heights. All the while, you can strum on Francis’ guitar, shredding out piercing solos that feel right at home in the alien landscapes. Levels often conclude with you Simon Says-ing out a guitar solo by following the lead of an alien creature. This is all exhilarating and part of the reason it works is that The Artful Escape takes its time starting off. We see Calypso, we see the flyers for Francis’ concert that feature a huge picture of his uncle and a stamp-sized picture of him, and we hear how the other people in town talk to him, how they relate to him not as himself, but as someone who matters only inasmuch as he shares a family tree with someone who matters.

This story works well, but it mostly succeeds in spite of The Artful Escape’s dialogue. Francis, and many of the alien creatures he meets on his journey, speak in strange metaphors that aim for artful but end up hitting hackneyed. Most of this dialogue is spoken once Francis leaves Earth, so it seems that the intent is to highlight the difference of this strange world in the way the characters speak. That’s a fine goal! But you can only choose between dialogue options describing something as “like a record playing in a dream-room” or “like clinging to a re-entry ramjet” so many times before it all begins to feel like a performative quirk.

The art here is brilliant, though, and it’s the star of the show. It most reminds me of the work of Charlie Immer, an artist who makes colorful paintings where the shiny roundness of everything helps you overlook how gruesome it all really is. The Artful Escape isn’t at all violent, as Immer’s work is, but it shares his infatuation with gleaming colors and soft edges. I’ve rarely played a game that committed so thoroughly to putting its aesthetic front and center. Developer Beethoven & Dinosaur have worked overtime to ensure that nothing distracts from how beautiful the art is, how strange the designs, and how soaring the set pieces are. Whether The Artful Escape is summoning the cozy greenery of a temperate forest you could see on our world, or inventing gleaming alien cities, the environments are stunning. I like this approach because The Artful Escape is willing to commit to a distinct aesthetic, but is unwilling to alienate players by making anything too difficult. You may like or dislike this game, but it will almost certainly be on the basis of whether you click with its vibe, not because you bumped into any mechanical friction. You simply run and jump through these environments holding X to play your guitar, but the level around you goes absolutely gangbusters with soaring alien ships, or strange wildlife, or bizarre cosmic phenomena.

No Caption Provided

Gallery

That commitment to its art style makes The Artful Escape a little difficult to talk about as a game that you play. It’s a platformer, it’s a music game, it’s an adventure game–it’s a little bit of each, but not fully any. It incorporates the vibes of all three, but it isn’t interested in, mechanically, committing to any of these genres. There are no tough puzzles, no difficult platforming challenges, and no complicated strings of notes to stretch your fingers. Instead, The Artful Escape incorporates the elements of each genre in order to emphasize the different elements of its story and the settings in which it takes place. To understand Francis’ discomfort with the expectations placed upon him, we need dialogue. To show off the wondrous locales that developer Beethoven & Dinosaur have crafted to populate this galaxy, we need the pulled-back perspective of a cinematic platformer. And, to show Francis’ musical journey, and the excellence that he has within him, we need musical gameplay, but it can’t be a real challenge. Everything is in its place here, and it feels right when you play it. But The Artful Escape can be difficult to sum up as a result.

Challenging as that may be, The Artful Escape is nevertheless a thrilling adventure that commits fully to showcasing its gorgeous art in soaring set pieces. Though some of the dialogue doesn’t work, the game is largely successful at stripping out anything that would distract from its masterful presentation. Unlike Francis Vendetti at the beginning of his journey, The Artful Escape knows exactly what it is.

Lost in Random Review – Six Appeal

Lost in Random makes a poor first impression. The overly dark and dreary opening areas are disjointed, rushing through the setup in a confusing and off-putting manner. It feels like you’ve been dealt a dud hand. Persist, though, and the cards start falling into place. The deck-building strategic layer gradually settles until it successfully blends with the core action of the combat, and the world eventually reveals a much more interesting, brighter, more colorful and character-filled side. Lost in Random overcomes a rocky start to tell a genuinely affecting tale of friendship, sibling bonds, and the cruelty of inequality.

The world of Random is ruled by a capricious Queen who determines the fates of her subjects with a roll of the dice. Ones are left to labor in the working-class slums while Sixers are whisked off to the Queen’s castle in the clouds, their newfound societal elevation relieving them of the burden of ever again interacting with the poor. Even is a young girl living in Onecroft when her older sister, Odd, rolls a six and they become separated. Even is rightly suspicious of the Queen and so sets out to rescue her sister.

Even quickly recruits a companion, Dicey, and learns how to fight by playing cards and rolling a dice–and yes, before you say anything, the game uses “dice” not as a plural but as a singular. Combat is the heart of this action-adventure, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Even can’t attack enemies without first playing a card that grants her an ability, but to be able to play a card at all she must first collect enough crystals to be dealt one. When she has cards up to a full hand of five she can roll Dicey and play a number of cards equal to the number on the dice. What at first feels like a lot of unnecessary complications soon comes together to offer plenty of clever tactical and strategic choices.

Throughout combat, there are always different approaches to take. The crystals used to power the dealing of cards can be collected from range by using Even’s basic slingshot to shoot clusters attached to enemies, or up close by correctly timing a dodge through an enemy while it attacks. Just this simple distinction fosters two separate play styles.

Cards offer a wide range of abilities that allow you to further tailor your style of play. Some grant weapons, equipping Even with a sword capable of quick slashes, a giant hammer for heftier blows, or a bow and arrow, among others, all of which deal direct damage to enemies while letting you make meaningful choices about whether to do so from range or in melee, fast and light or slow and heavy.

Other cards allow you to deploy various assistants on the battle arena in the shape of what are essentially a range of mobile and stationary turrets, each of which will do their own thing but hit hard when they connect. Here, you’re trading the reliability of using your own weapon for the potential to deal much greater damage. You can even turn Dicey into a bomb, but honestly, it feels a bit rude. The poor guy’s got enough on his plate as it is.

The selection of cards I found myself drawn to was the slightly more esoteric picks. One lets you deal damage to an attacking enemy when you dodge through it, and another enables you to deal damage to an enemy whenever you shoot a crystal cluster off them. There are loads of others, too, adding poison attacks, slowing down time, several methods of healing and granting additional card uses, and so on. It adds up to a lot to consider and the limits on how and when you can play your cards force you into important tactical decisions throughout every combat encounter.

There’s a recurring concern about abiding by or rejecting the rules, and how willing people are to accept their place in life. Or indeed, accepting the idea that there is a place in life to accept

You’ll settle on some favorites and discover how certain cards compliment others, but then a new enemy will show up, or a new combination of enemy types will appear together, to confound your planning and force you to reconsider. Your deck is limited to 15 cards, including multiples of the same card if you have them, and during combat the deck is shuffled between each hand, meaning you can’t always rely on getting dealt the exact cards you want in any given situation. And even if you get lucky and find yourself dealt the hammer and the healing that you wanted, for example, if Dicey only rolled a 1 then you’re only able to play one of them.

Improvisation is vital, and what’s impressive is how regularly Lost in Random places you in a tight spot and provides you with the tools to get out of it, even if they weren’t the specific tools you had in mind. While every card is useful, there were quite a few occasions where I realized I’d entered a combat encounter with a deck balance ill-suited to the task at hand. That I still managed to struggle through in many of those occasions is a credit to the flexibility of the combat system. And when I didn’t, it was simply a case of dying, tweaking my deck, and trying again. There’s no punishment for failure.

Outside of combat, Lost in Random is less sure of itself. Even travels the six worlds of Random, each modeled on a different face of the dice, chasing up tenuous leads in pursuit of her sister. Exploring these worlds is cumbersome, with Even’s inability to jump (except at certain prescribed locations) and tendency to get snagged on irregular shapes in the environment making basic traversal rather awkward. Although quite distinct from each other, the worlds feel samey within, full of new passageways that look like the one you just visited and mostly absent of truly memorable locations.

True to the oppressive nature of the Queen’s rule, the worlds too often feel lifeless, despite the best efforts of the many people Even can stop and talk to and run quests for. Too many areas remain etched in shadow and shrouded in fog, sadly dulling the more eye-catching sights and diminishing an incentive to explore. Offering relief from the relentless gloom elsewhere, later areas are more likely to be brightened by sunlight and provide a superior showcase for the consistently surreal fairytale architecture. It’s just a shame that so much of the creativity and imagination of the landscapes finds itself obscured.

Still, it’s worth exploring every nook and cranny to chase down every last treasure pot hidden throughout Random, plundering extra loot to allow Even to purchase more cards to take into battle. More cards mean more options to build your deck and more choices to make in combat, further enhancing the game’s greatest strength.

And despite the lackluster environments making it tough to truly feel invested in the fate of Random, the city’s people will win your heart. Even is such a wonderful central character. She’s tenacious and stubborn and fearless, like a kid who has yet to understand the limits of her ability to change the world. But she’s also tender and worried and full of doubts about what she’s doing and her place in the world. Clever writing of her conversations with Dicey–he speaks only in unintelligible noises, but Even understands him and you can parse what he’s just said by the various dialogue options she can choose in response–reveal a strong friendship built on bonds of trust and a shared sense of humor. They both emerge as well-rounded–or perhaps well-cubed–and memorable characters who possess a genuine affection for each other.

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Random is full of similarly memorable characters, albeit none as quite so fleshed-out as the two leads, all sending Even on a quest that will at some point tie into her main objective and intersect with the central narrative themes. There’s a recurring concern about abiding by or rejecting the rules, and how willing people are to accept their place in life. Or indeed, accepting the idea that there is a place in life to accept. Random is a world ruled by the 1% who decide, on a whim, at the roll of the dice, the life of everyone else. It’s a world where that power has so far remained unchallenged because divisions are sewn to pit its people against each other, to distract them from the actual source of their misery and oppression. At one point, Even remarks, “You grow up with it so you think it’s normal, but the whole thing is madness.” She’s talking about dice determining a person’s fate, but she could easily be talking about many aspects of our neoliberal capitalist world and the severe inequality it continues to inflict on all of us.

Lost in Random may have the look of a grubby Dickensian child, yet there’s a surprising amount of meat on its bones. It may not always do its world justice, but there are charming and stirring stories to find if you can see through the dreary fog. In one memorably witty scene, it even manages to redeem its consistently incorrect use of “dice” to represent the singular. And best of all, there’s a great combat engine that smartly implements deck-building mechanics to reward both strategic preparation and tactical invention. Make it past the slow start and you’ll be lost in no time.

Deathloop Review: All You Need Is Kill

The Isle of Blackreef is a place where lawlessness and debauchery aren’t just welcomed but encouraged. It’s caught in a time loop, so the events of any given day have no bearing on the next. At the end of every sex, drug, and alcohol binge-fueled evening, the slate is wiped clean so it can happen all over again. Memories are lost and harm–self-inflicted or done to others–is always undone. Blackreef changed me. It made me behave in a way that’s not in my nature. Whether it’s Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex, Splinter Cell, or Dishonored, the role I inhabit is that of a ghost, entering a scenario to achieve an objective and leaving with clean hands and conscience. I’m the pebble thrown into water that makes no ripples.

And yet, in Deathloop, I murdered hundreds of Eternalists and I felt good about doing it. I tried to be true to myself–skulking across rooftops, hiding in dark corners, and carefully moving between people, but the allure of Blackreef’s daily absolution was difficult to resist. I watched the first Eternalist I killed dissolve into nothingness, and a message written into the air in some ethereal ink assured me he’d return in the next loop, completely oblivious to what happened. Killing became second nature, and with no consequence why wouldn’t it?

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Now Playing: Deathloop Video Review

The rules of Deathloop’s world created an intoxicating sense of liberation, but this leads to the game’s central question of purpose: When nothing matters, how do you give your actions meaning? That is where developer Arkane Lyon’s gameplay design comes into play, and killing with reckless abandon becomes killing for a reason: to break the loop. The mechanics that govern the world and facilitate your quest to upend it are constructed so masterfully that there’s a tangible sense of growth both in-game and out of it. You begin your first day in Blackreef dazed, confused, and incredibly hungover, and end your final one as the unstoppable architect of its demise.

But what’s most impressive about Deathloop is that it’s also an introspective game. It’s Arkane deconstructing its own brand of open-ended action and laying bare all the pieces crucial to it. The systems are presented as digestible on an individual level, but then the game subtly pushes you to put the pieces together so you can truly appreciate how the clockwork world ticks, before bringing a swift fist crashing down on it. Deathloop is a game where observation and dynamic thinking go hand-in-hand with shotgunning goons in the face and snapping their necks; where throwing a grenade into a soiree for sycophants counts as the right kind of experimentation and derring-do. It delivers bombastic thrills and wince-inducing kills with intelligence and elegance in equal measure.

At the heart of the game is Colt Vahn, a man simultaneously adrift in time and stuck within it. He wakes up on a beach with no memory of how he got there or what’s really going on. However, what distinguishes him from the other hedonistic denizens of Blackreef is that he is able to retain his memories between loops. Dying will force him into a new loop, but the knowledge he has accrued up until his death will return with him. And very soon, he discovers that a strange element called Residuum can be harnessed to give his arsenal of weaponry and supernatural abilities permanence too.

Like Arkane Lyon’s Dishonored games, Deathloop is a fascinating mashup of styles and vibes, both narratively and aesthetically. Underpinning the world is a kind of retro-future science that, as oxymoronic as it sounds, is incredibly effective at giving the world texture–think time travel by way of 1960s computers that fill a room and look like they have less power than an original iPhone. Complementing that is an element of the supernatural that is essentially time science harnessed by a genius mind to give a chosen few the ability to do things like teleport, link the fates of people together, become almost invisible to the naked eye, or throw objects around an environment with a wave of the hand. These abilities are bestowed to the Visionaries, an eclectic group of elites that the rank and file are sworn to protect so that their life of indulgence can remain eternal. Colt’s goal is to kill these Visionaries and, in doing so, break the time loop that keeps him trapped there. The rub is that it needs to be done in one day–a single loop. Easier said than done given that the game operates on a day and night cycle where, over the course of the loop, each Visionary has their own routine and life to lead.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the Visionaries know Colt is out to get them and, in fact, all of them have some sort of pre-existing relationship with him. One in particular, Julianna, takes it upon herself to be a thorn in Colt’s side. She serves the role of antagonist but the situation is clearly complicated between them. Their interpersonal dynamic is placed front and center to drive much of the narrative and characterization, and both characters are realized exceptionally well.

Julianna is the voice in Colt’s ear and also over Blackreef’s loudspeakers, and she does her damndest to get under his skin. She picks at him in a way that only someone with a deep personal connection to you can, using insight into his personality and history to constantly undermine him and poke at his neuroses. She’s always one step ahead, exposing Colt’s habits, analyzing his behaviors, and revealing truths about Colt that, because of his initial amnesia, he’s yet to realize himself. And yet, there’s also a sweetness to their interactions at times, like a couple in the heat of an argument remembering for just a moment why they care about each other. She’s a confusing presence, in one breath chastising him for his actions and in another encouraging them. She guides him to objectives and then lays the guilt on thick when he achieves them.

In a very real sense, she’s a pure agent of chaos and her motivations remain unclear until just the right moment. The voice acting is absolutely crucial to selling this relationship and in that regard, it is achieved exceptionally well thanks to the outstanding delivery by Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha as Colt and Julianna respectively. Some lines from Julianna have a mischievous tone while others are tinged with spite and growing frustration. For his part, Colt begins unsure of himself and unclear of why this woman has it in for him, but as he learns more, he becomes confident, choosing to engage in the verbal jousts and starting getting under her skin. The constant back and forths between the two is genuinely a joy to listen to and the writing is sharp to make the development of their relationship feel natural.

The main focus of Colt’s attention, however, is the aforementioned Visionaries who need to be offed, and this is where Deathloop’s open-ended gameplay does the heavy lifting. Blackreef is split up into multiple districts, and each one is usually home to at least one of the Visionaries. Colt’s objective is to enter an area and figure out how to get himself into a position where he can kill said Visionary and take their Slab, an item that gives them one of the six unique supernatural abilities. But it’s not as simple as running into a building and gunning them down as each of the Visionaries is… a weirdo. Charlie, for example, has transformed a part of Updaam into a low-budget escape room made up of multiple themed floors, complete with puzzles and a whole lot of weapon-wielding Eternalists standing between the entrance and him. Harriet has taken up residence in a Karl’s Bay hanger, where she’s hosting a group wellness session that is as sinister as it sounds. Wenjie is a super smart scientist who is responsible for harnessing the strange energy of the time loop to create the slabs and rarely leaves her lab in The Complex, but you might find yourself facing an existential conundrum when you’re face to face with her.

Deathloop is a game where observation and dynamic thinking go hand-in-hand with shotgunning goons in the face and snapping their necks … it delivers bombastic thrills and wince-inducing kills with intelligence and elegance in equal measure

Deathloop’s day-and-night cycle also means that these Visionaries are only available at certain times of the day. Although you can manually progress time to your needs, there’s only ever a specific window of opportunity to kill a Visionary. That means you need to play through time loops repeatedly, puzzling out a plan to execute it when the time is right. The game makes this more manageable by giving the player Visionary Leads to follow. These are quest chains that guide the player to key pieces of information necessary to pull off the assassination and will often take Colt through different environments at different times of the day. You may need the code to a door in Fristad Rock, for example, but a ledger with that information is being stored in an office elsewhere that can only be accessed when a worker leaves the door open in the afternoon.

The result of this approach is that you’re slowly trained to develop a meticulous understanding of each area in the game. And as your Colt grows in strength and capabilities, so too does your proficiency in navigating them. After killing a Visionary you gain a power, which can be used in the following time loops, provided you invest in it. This growth comes by way of Residuum that can be extracted from charged objects in the environment or, in more abundance, from the dead body of a Visionary. By channeling this resource into weapons and items, you’re able to hold onto them between loops. Slab powers are the most essential as they give you a significant ability, and killing a Visionary repeatedly to take their slab will evolve the power. The Shift power, for example, lets you teleport much like Dishonored’s Blink. But by repeatedly killing the Visionary wielding it and collecting it, you’re able to upgrade the power to let you travel further or hover in the air briefly. Aether lets you turn invisible but becomes more effective if you upgrade it so its effect doesn’t wear off when you attack.

Along with powers, Trinkets are also littered throughout the world and come in two flavors. Weapon trinkets can be used to augment your combat abilities by improving stats like range, power, and aim-down-sights speed. Personal trinkets, meanwhile, enhance Colt’s performance by improving health regeneration, decreasing the amount of noise he makes when moving, or adjusting how his power meter depletes and recovers, among other things. And these all come in multiple color-coded tiers of effectiveness. The presence of these is what makes each time loop consistently rewarding to play through, even if you fail to achieve a bigger objective. Sometimes it can be good to do a run through an area or even an entire loop to build your Residuum balance and collect some more trinkets, especially since it’s also an opportunity to refine your chosen playstyle a bit more. There’s nothing quite like deciding to run into an area with your guns blazing just so you can chew through Eternalists and a Visionary, knowing that you’re doing it just to grab resources. Since Colt is able to come back from death twice, there is a degree of forgiveness in the game that really encourages doing wacky things when the opportunity arises. That third death will reset the loop entirely though, so some strategy is also required if you want to make the most of your time.

Very quickly, you’ll find yourself developing a level of mastery over the world thanks to the powers and weapons that you’ve accumulated. A Visionary kill that initially took 20 minutes can be reduced to just a couple as you dart around environments, stealthing through one group of enemies, while laying siege to another, and ultimately cutting through your target before they’ve even realized what’s happening. The repetition-based design of Deathloop eases you into creating a flow state that you can enter into and exit from at will. With the character development systems, it gamifies trial and error so effectively that failures almost always still feel like small triumphs. This might sound typical, given the prominence of recent roguelite games such as Hades, but Deathloop’s gameplay feels entirely of its own brand, and that is because it’s built on the foundation of Arkane’s domino-effect design.

That is especially apparent as you uncover dead ends, of which there are many scattered around Deathloop’s various environments. Documents peppered around the world will provide a small lead on something, which is then marked as a discovery, and the game does an excellent job of creating a breadcrumb trail around Blackreef for you to follow, and it always leads to something meaningful. Whether it’s finding the code to open a locked door you stumbled upon hours ago or figuring out how to manipulate two Visionaries into appearing at the same place at the same time, you’re never more than a run or two away from having an epiphany. And when it dawns upon you, the feeling will make you giddy. It’s like using just the right wrench to loosen a nut that felt like it was impossibly tight.

In many regards, Deathloop is a game about being meticulous, and Arkane has done a fantastic job in making just being in the world, looking around, and listening to it enthralling. It should come as no surprise that Blackreef is absolutely stunning to behold, given the strong sense of art direction the studio’s previous games have had. Each of the four areas of the game has a distinct style, which changes depending on the time of day thanks to lighting and even weather effects. There’s a wonderful retro pop-art motif that runs throughout, with eye-catching posters and signs that not only furnish each environment to be visually pleasing, but also serve as a kind of pathway for the player to explore. Architecture is constructed thoughtfully so, in any given scenario, you can see a way in and a way out. On the ground level, a neon billboard may draw your attention, revealing scaffolding that can be clambered up to give you a better vantage point. Or a spotlight on a stone wall may gesture towards an open window, offering a way into a building that otherwise seems impregnable.

Of particular note are the ’60s-esque interiors that are somehow both beautiful and utterly garish in the way only retro furniture can be. Wooden walls, shocking red pleather couches that look like they would make your arse numb after a minute of sitting on them, and oddly contorted lighting fixtures will stop you in your tracks so you can ogle how strange they are. But they also fit into the aesthetic so perfectly that you can’t help but be impressed by the interior design chops being displayed. Needless to say, Arkane’s sense of art direction remains impeccable and, for my money, unmatched.

And complementing it is the raucous soundtrack that is as eclectic and as unexpected as the visual stylings. Continuing the mashup of style and themes, Deathloop transitions effortlessly between disparate styles to suit the needs of the moment from a cinematic standpoint, but also has you tapping your feet along to the chaos happening on screen. One minute you’re creeping through underground tunnels, backed by the bleeps, bloops, and ambient warbles of old sci-fi movies in tense stealth sections, and the next you’re engaged in an all-out gunfight with hordes of Eternalists to the sound of a big band orchestra and off-the-chain sax solos. Deathloop’s gunplay is weighty and satisfying, and a great deal of the thrill that comes from trading lead is elevated by the brilliant, funky soundtrack.

The final piece to Deathloop’s gameplay puzzle is multiplayer, which manifests itself in two ways. The first is technically not multiplayer, as it sees Julianna invade Colt’s game to try and assassinate him. This Julianna is computer-controlled but no less deadly for it. At random points, the game announces that Julianna has invaded and locked the exit points out the area. The only way to escape is to hack a specific point to unlock the exit tunnels, but to do that you have to go through her. These moments are genuinely terrifying, especially when you’re on a good run. Julianna is capable of masking her appearance to look like any random Eternalist, so she could really be anywhere and anyone. And when she does have you in her crosshairs you better hope you have her in yours. She can be ruthless, but the reward for taking her out is massive. She will often drop a Slab, meaning you can acquire powers or upgrades without needing to kill the Visionary who has them. And if you’re smart, you can even set up elaborate traps using turrets and grenades to get the jump on her.

Of course, a human player–someone on your friends list, a random person on the internet, or even you–can choose to protect the loop by assuming the role of Julianna. As the hunter, you invade Colt’s world with the goal of taking him out before he can kill you or escape. Unlike Colt, who has that ability to undo his deaths a couple of times, Julianna has just one shot at her mark, which means you need to be much more considered. However, the ability to mimic NPCs is a devious advantage that is much more effective than you might think, especially if you have a good understanding of the world and can use a player’s knowledge against them.

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For example, you may know that there’s a specific enemy that is always positioned in a specific spot and, if you’re able to swap positions with them, the Colt player may just assume you’re a harmless Eternalist, only for you to strike when they least suspect it. You can also use powers that are unlocked gradually as you continue to invade players. Julianna has her own progression tree that tasks her with completing feats such as successfully killing Colt in a specific way, surviving for a certain period of time, using a particular weapon, and so on. As you complete these, more Slab abilities, weapons, and trinkets become available, making you a deadlier killer. The sense of tension this introduces to gameplay is exhilarating as you never know when a Julianna could appear to turn your world upside down. It harkens back to the kind of hide-and-seek multiplayer introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and the PvP of the Soulsborne games, and it works really well within Deathloop. Of course, you can opt not to allow people to invade if you’d prefer a purely single-player experience.

Perhaps the most laudable part of Deathloop is how it takes so many seemingly disparate things and creates harmony between them. Gameplay systems that feel isolated become pieces of a bigger puzzle, and when you see how they seamlessly connect together, you realize how special an achievement it really is. Similarly, on paper, the different aesthetics should be like oil and water, but they come together effortlessly to be part of a greater whole, and, for me, that’s what Deathloop is really about. By standing back and looking at the bigger picture, the uncharacteristic choices and unexpected behaviors feel necessary–essential even. Maybe it’s just what I need to believe to give all that killing meaning, but when I began the final loop and carved a perfect, bloody path through Blackreef’s Visionaries in a single day, I made no ripples.

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Life Is Strange: True Colors Review — More Than A Feeling

September 9, 2021   Addict Gamer   No comments

For six years, the Life Is Strange series has consistently told stories about the ties that bind us, between friends, families, and communities. The latest entry, True Colors, represents the first time subtext becomes not just text, but the game’s core mechanic. The strength of Life Is Strange as a series is how it always seeks to answers the deeper questions about why people are the way they are, but even compared to the original Life is Strange protagonist Max Caulfield seeking to untangle her best friend’s life, or Sean and Daniel Diaz of Life is Strange 2 being at the mercy of an increasingly merciless America, True Colors drills deeper. It features a new hero who can delve into peoples’ lives on a level beyond the capabilities of the series’ other protagonists. That ability lets the game traverse some new, fascinating territory for this series, but it’s still a bit too bashful about staying there for too long..

You play as Alex Chen, a child of the foster care system who was separated from her big brother Gabe when she was 10. She bounced from family to facility and back again for over a decade before, finally, Gabe tracked her down and invited her to his new home of Haven Springs, an idyllic little village in Colorado. While it’s seemingly a peaceful-enough place to start a life, Alex is helpless when it comes to her big secret and the game’s supernatural hook: Alex is a superpowered empath who is not only able to see and read peoples’ emotions as giant bursts of psychedelic colors, but if the emotion is strong enough, she will actually inherit it. Unfortunately, the foster care system not exactly being the happiest place on earth means Alex finds herself consumed by crippling depressive episodes and extreme fits of rage beyond her control.

And so, as Alex begins her new life, Haven Springs starts to rub off on her, in more ways than one. When a major tragedy strikes the town, keeping the peace becomes an imperative, and it’s about protecting herself just as much as it is about protecting the town. For the most part, True Colors operates the same way as every other Life Is Strange title: As Alex, you walk around and interact with everything and everyone the game will allow you to, occasionally making crucial, life-changing choices through dialogue that affect the world and the course of the story. On the technical level, there are a few marked improvements over past games in the series, especially in terms of visuals. This is the most gorgeous and lush Life is Strange game, with a huge, impressive improvement to the character performances, though it comes at a price. The PS5 port we tested took some heavy hits in frame rate when wandering around the town and stuttered elsewhere. The PC port handled much better, but even there, keeping up with the workload isn’t easy on the computer.

Mechanically, though, there’s one major addition: There will frequently be the option for Alex to use her powers and read the true emotions from a person’s mind, or feel the emotional attachments and memories associated with an object in the environment. At its most benign and hilarious, Alex can see someone having an outwardly civil phone conversation with a customer service rep, only to use her power to hear them internally having an absolute toddler tantrum. At its most harrowing, Alex can read a scared child, only to see the fear physically manifest as a fire-breathing abyssal maw, ready to swallow the child whole at any moment. It allows True Colors to play around with visuals in a way we haven’t seen, and on PS5, there’s a thoughtful use of the DualSense’s haptics that adds another nice layer of immersion to how much of an effect Alex’s powers are having on her.

It would be all too easy to make Alex’s life a screaming hellscape, with her unable to hide from humanity’s worst and most primal instincts, but thankfully, True Colors shows more restraint than that. The vibe is more of a “life comes at you fast” approach where heartache and disappointment creep up and sideswipe Alex rather than flooding over her at all times. The restraint makes the moments where darkness and negativity do pervade land much better. But, for long stretches, the pendulum almost swings too far in the other direction. True Colors is almost too kind as a narrative. Every single character and NPC has a baseline niceness that, while comfortable and soothing, borders on disingenuous given the grim emotional stakes. There’s a Gilmore Girls-y vibe to the whole thing; even most of the bastards have their charms, and there aren’t a lot of bastards to begin with. The other Life Is Strange games–even Dontnod’s Tell Me Why–were more balanced in that regard.

There is still, however, a pitch-black undercurrent to the game, asking big questions about sickness, death, grief, parenting, relationships, and what it costs to empathize with or forgive the monsters who threaten us. Where the game is most impressive is in asking questions that don’t have easy answers, and it does recognize that in the spots where it counts the most. One of the most harrowing moments in the game involves Alex comforting a mother who’s lost the love of her life, a man who eagerly wanted to be stepfather to her child. The resolution ends up in an unexpected place, with Alex reading the woman’s emotions and discovering she secretly resents her child for robbing her of her agency. Even more impressive is the fact that this is not a scenario with an easy solution. Alex using her powers to influence the situation ends up backfiring in a huge way later. This is a problem that Alex cannot solve, and she has to figure out the best way to offer herself and her support to the mother. There are a few situations in the game that maintain that level of maturity, and its final chapter is absolute perfection in that regard: an incredible, ambitious sequence of abstract storytelling, flashbacks, flash-forwards, creepy hallucinations, and beautiful catharsis. But by and large, the game settles for being syrupy sweet and heartfelt. It’s a town where the local Nextdoor equivalent is a quirky place populated by residents telling good-natured in-jokes, the local bar is full of awkward couples who are all nice to their servers, landlords willingly defer rent while a tenant is bereaved, and the local cop is a kindly schlub.

Haven Springs is a lovely place to visit, especially nowadays. These are people who deserve to have an empath in their midst, helping them process their negativity and fear into something healthier, and it’s a perfect place for Alex to truly come into her own as a person. But the feedback loop is a little stilted. With few exceptions, Alex’s immense kindness only comes back to her toward the end of the game. She is essentially the catalyst for anything happening in town. But Alex’s own actualization comes from trauma, when she is utterly alone. The typical video game structure of you, the player, being the only one shouldering the burden for an entire community feels more unfair than usual here, and for a game that so wants us to buy into the idea of Haven Springs as a community, that lopsided generosity comes off as a little awkward. The primary complaint really is that previous games in this series had cynicism that our protagonists had to rise above, and the journey to do so felt like more of a struggle, which is something that Life is Strange: True Colors lacks. Until the climax, Alex’s journey feels low-stakes across the board, even when it arrives at difficult solutions to problems. It’s never in doubt that Alex might persevere and leave Haven Springs better than how she found it.

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There’s merit in that approach, especially given how the other games have ended on such emotionally devastating notes. Alex being able to just purely help, without compromise, feels good in the moment. This is a game full of well-drawn places and characters with depth and stories worth telling, a game of diners and ice cream shops, flower-covered houses, golden sunsets, and blissful spring festivals. It’s a town that puts together an entire town-wide LARP session just for the sake of making one little boy feel better about his life.

There is light that developer Deck Nine just never allows darkness to touch, and there is joy to be had in being able to play some small part in making sure they all do better. But the disconnect between that vibe and the turmoil that brought Alex here to begin with is tangible, and the game would achieve brilliance if those two concerns could connect. Dropping by Haven Springs is still time well-spent–but it’s simply a pleasant visit, rather than a powerful, emotionally resonant one.

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Tales Of Arise Review — Wake Me Up Inside

September 8, 2021   Addict Gamer   No comments

As the first major original JRPG on new consoles and the latest installment of a very long-running series, Tales of Arise comes with a lot of expectations attached. Arise sets out to refresh its visual presentation and gameplay to appeal to a new audience, but it also tries its best to retain what has made the Tales series so beloved among its longtime fans: fun characters, fast-paced combat, and an epic sense of scale. While it manages to succeed admirably at most of what it tries to do, a few shortcomings keep it from being the new standard-bearer for RPGs to come.

300 years ago, the planet Dahna was invaded by the people of their neighboring star, Rena, and crumbled beneath the might of the Renans’ advanced technology and knowledge. Since their conquest, the Renans have destroyed the once-vibrant Dahnan culture and enslaved the planet’s people. One day, a nameless, amnesiac slave known only as Iron Mask finds himself caught up in a supply train hijacking by rebel forces–and discovers that the freight is a Renan woman with a strange curse. As he gets swept up in a Dahnan rebellion, Iron Mask discovers new powers, his true name–Alphen–and a connection to the Renan girl, Shionne. But this tiny slave rebellion grows into something much bigger.

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Now Playing: Tales Of Arise Video Review

The beginning of Tales of Arise is a marked departure from the chipper banter and adventuring most Tales games lead off with. With heavy topics like slavery and oppression taking center stage in the narrative, the overall tone of Arise’s story for the first several hours is quite dour, drilling into you the sheer misery and desperation of the Dahnan people. Fortunately, once your party fills out, the familiar Tales party dynamics come back in full force, with characters’ personalities bouncing off each other in numerous entertaining dialogue exchanges. The rapport among your teammates–and watching their interactions change as they go through individual character arcs–is a major draw, and you’ll find yourself eager to keep playing just to see the team react to the latest turn of events around the campfire or complain about the latest broken dungeon elevator.

It’s good that the characters are so likable because they really help carry the story through some rough patches. The abuse and liberation of oppressed peoples is very challenging and prescient subject matter to tackle, and generally, Tales of Arise handles the material well–but at times it disappoints by not diving beyond a superficial level into some of the difficult moral issues the story presents. The pacing can also feel rushed, as the plot frequently introduces characters who we don’t get to know well but are suddenly rendered very important to the current events, and then quickly exit the narrative after contributing their major story beat. While the narrative in Arise’s latter half shifts thematically, many of the same issues remain throughout.

Like most JRPGs, the narrative in Tales of Arise is very linear. That isn’t a bad thing, however, as the constant promise of new lands to explore or new dungeons to delve into is a strong impetus to keep moving. You are also presented with numerous optional side quests to tackle, should so you so choose, and a very convenient fast-travel system makes it easy to return to previous areas should you want to do additional exploration or resource gathering for crafting and cooking. (There’s also a surprisingly satisfying fishing minigame at ponds throughout Arise that, if you’re not careful, will consume far too much of your playtime.)

But as beautiful as Arise’s environments are, the big gameplay draw lies in its battles. The Tales series has always leaned heavily on the appeal of its robust, action-oriented combat, and Arise is no different in this respect. When you encounter enemies during exploration, you’ll be spirited off to a combat screen where you’ll go toe-to-toe with foes in a small arena. During combat, you can move freely and execute a variety of normal and special attacks called Artes, which you assign to controller buttons. Naturally, you can also jump and guard/dodge enemy attacks. Heavy emphasis is placed on positioning, dodging, and chaining attacks together to land massive combos, breaking down foes’ resistances to set up a team-based finisher called a Boost Strike. While you can only directly control one character at a time, you can give your three companions detailed strategies to follow, and their AI tends to function quite well.

There’s always something fresh and new being added to combat … making Tales of Arise’s battles feel consistently exciting

There are some interesting new twists to combat this time around, however. Offensive and restorative Artes no longer use the same resource pool, as healing spells (and environmental interactions) now utilize a separate, party-wide Cure Points stock. This separation allows for all characters to focus more heavily on offense during battle, as there’s no need to worry about saving a specific character’s Artes for healing in emergencies–though characters like Shionne will still need to be ready to switch between fighting and healing when needed, and the Cure Points pool always needs to be carefully monitored.

Each character is also given unique perks that differentiate themselves and establish their particular roles in battle, making each of them play wildly different from each other. Alphen can sacrifice HP after using Artes to deal extra damage; sprightly mage Rinwell can charge and hold her magical Artes to chain together combos more easily; elegant knight Kisara guards with her massive shield rather than dodging and performs enhanced Artes out of her guarding stance; and so on. Each character also has a unique, limited-use Boost Attack that serves a distinct purpose, like Law’s armor-shattering punches or Dohalim’s movement-restricting vines.

Many of these layers to combat aren’t revealed or aren’t obvious right away, instead being rolled out over the course of the game. A good chunk of each characters’ skills will need to be opened up as you play through the Skill Panel system, where you spend SP earned throughout the game to enhance your characters’ abilities in combat. There’s always something fresh and new being added to combat as a result, making Tales of Arise’s battles feel consistently exciting.

When Tales of Arise’s combat is at its best, it feels like a well-oiled machine, with Artes flying, enemies being smacked around and juggled through the air, armor being crushed, and guards being broken, all topped off by a spectacular finishing Boost Strike or Mystic Arte to crush foes into oblivion. But it’s not always that smooth and satisfying–sometimes there is just so much happening on-screen at once (with much of it out of your control) that it’s difficult to keep track of what Artes your squad is tossing at the enemy and what attacks they’re flinging back at you, particularly during boss fights or when you’re taking on a large enemy pack. It’s not uncommon to find yourself severely damaged or KO’d without fully understanding why in these cases–and while it’s fairly easy to pick yourself back up, it’s still frustrating. There were numerous times when I felt like I was playing at my best and still getting pummeled for reasons that were unclear. Unlike many other Tales games, Arise doesn’t offer any co-op play, so you can’t rely on a buddy to help keep things under control, either.

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And then there’s the DLC problem. While Tales of Arise offers some paid cosmetic DLC–extra costumes and decorations, which don’t change gameplay–it also offers “gameplay boosting” packages that grant bonuses like permanent EXP and SP boosts, massive shop discounts, reducing all crafting and cooking materials needed to 1, and so on. While this is an optional purchase, the fact that it exists at all constantly made me second-guess the game’s design decisions: are healing items expensive to teach me to take less damage, or to get me to buy a shop discount DLC package? Are boss fights so much harder than standard fights because the designers really want to test my skills, or because I didn’t get that EXP boost DLC? I often felt like money and resources like SP were kept scarce, so instead of focusing completely on having fun and exploring Tales of Arise’s various gameplay systems, I was often wondering if I was being subtly pushed to buy gameplay advantages.

Taken as a whole, Tales of Arise is a very good RPG, boasting beautiful visuals, a wonderful cast of characters, and engaging combat mechanics–but its flaws (and that odious DLC) are also difficult to ignore. If you’re looking for a lengthy, charming, and engaging JRPG to play on your shiny new console or PC gaming rig, Tales of Arise is certainly a fine choice. Just don’t go into it expecting an all-time classic.

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