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Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part 1 Review

Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part 1 feels like a thrilling action movie occasionally interrupted by a game of I Spy. You want to keep watching John Wick’s balletic slaughter but your impertinent host won’t unpause the Blu-ray until you spot the ficus in the background.

It’s also tough as nails. If you haven’t played Doom Eternal since it launched back in March, the first moments of its new DLC, The Ancient Gods Part 1, will feel like a kick in the teeth–n a good way, mostly. Once you get back in the demon-slaying swing of things, it’s exciting to have more high-level Doom Eternal to play, unconstrained by the need to reintroduce you to the basics. But, still: Be ready.

The Ancient Gods Part 1 picks up right where Eternal left off. After an opening “previously on” text screen and a cutscene that will remind you that Doom Eternal focused way too much on story and Proper Noun-riddled lore, the DLC tosses you back into the action. Your entire roster of weapons–save the Crucible, that overpowered glowing red sword Doom Guy scored toward the end of the vanilla game–is unlocked right from the start. The Ancient Gods also throws the big bads of Eternal’s late-game roster at you right out of the gate. I had my first fight with a Marauder less than an hour in.

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The Ancient Gods doesn’t take the time to re-tutorialize you on Doom Eternal’s mechanics. You need to remember to blast the Marauder with the super shotgun when his eyes flash green, that grenades belong in the cacodemon’s gaping mouth, that the mancubus must be pelted on his arm cannons. It’s a lot to remember! Doom Eternal, at its best, is a chaotic, frenzied, tactical, bloody dance, and I realized as soon as I started The Ancient Gods that I was foggy on the steps.

Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part 1 is a direct continuation of the base game’s campaign, and where it succeeds, it does so on the basis of what Doom Eternal already did well. The Ancient Gods maintains Doom Eternal’s strong roster of enemies along with the Doom Slayer’s matching arsenal of weapons. Fights still largely take place in multi-tiered arenas, with platforms to hop on, portals to dash through, and monkey bars to swing from. It’s an acrobatic game that requires fluidity of motion and chess-like tactical thinking, roughly in equal measures.

But just as The Ancient Gods succeeds on the strengths of the base game, so too does it falter in familiar ways. Eternal is as story-heavy as a Doom game has been, and for players, like myself, who come to Doom for ripping and tearing, that focus doesn’t work. Doom Eternal’s story fails because it goes all-in on self-serious lore, a pairing that feels out of step with the inherent goofiness of its gory kills. The Ancient Gods is no exception. The Doom Slayer is scouring the realms of demons and angels and mortals for McGuffins and little time is spent establishing the necessary stakes to get you to care. The base game constantly expected you to know who an important angel or demon was, but didn’t take the time to introduce them. The Ancient Gods, thus far, has the same problem.

The Ancient Gods’ non-combat platforming is a slight improvement over the traversal in the base game. In Doom Eternal, it was often difficult to tell where to go, and sometimes–as in the Arc Complex level, which covered the floor in movement-halting purple sludge–the game actively slowed your progress in frustrating ways. In this expansion, however, the platforming is less extensive and mostly straightforward, allowing for a greater focus on the combat. And when the platforming is the focus, it works well. I especially enjoyed one section, which tasks the Doom Slayer with punching trees to make and move bridges. It’s brief, but it plays to Doom Eternal’s strengths, refashioning a platforming puzzle into an excuse to punch something new for novel results.

This DLC alternates uneasily between the all-out speed that Doom Eternal does so well and slower, careful sniping that stops the dance in its tracks.

The three new levels that comprise The Ancient Gods’ 5-to-10-hour campaign are well designed, with a variety of interesting play spaces. The multi-tiered arenas of Eternal are still prevalent, but they’re broken up by varied objectives and level hooks. One section, where you’re tasked with following a ghostly dog through a miasma that hurts you if you get too far away from your companion, is a welcome break from the typical fights, just forgiving enough that it doesn’t get frustrating, and just long enough that it doesn’t get boring. One late-game battle has you hopping among platforms to avoid damage as they catch fire. Then, when the platforms raise up above your head, you find yourself skirting the fiery hydraulics that lifted them. The Ancient Gods Part 1 has a few interesting setups like this, but even when the arenas are more standard Doom Eternal fare, they’re great fun to fight through. The environmental art is strong, too, and each level, whether it’s a stormy military base or a foggy swamp, is visually distinct from what comes before and after.

I mentioned the Marauder above, and the devilish warrior seems to have influenced the direction id moved in with The Ancient Gods Part 1. The axe-wielding, shield-bearing, fire dog-commanding demon felt more like a Dark Souls enemy than the kind of opponent you would expect to see in a Doom game. Marauder fights require an intense focus, careful timing, and vigilant measurement of the distance between you and your foe. While I like the Marauder for the vicious change of pace it provides, The Ancient Gods Part 1 adds multiple new enemies that function in similar ways. The Spirit, which can possess and empower enemies, must be hit with the plasma rifle’s microwave beam in the brief moment after you kill its host and before it possesses another. The turret, which looks like a candlestick with a purple eyeball where the flame would be, plays peekaboo if you look its way and must be shot quickly in the eye before it disappears again. The Blood Maykr needs to be shot in the head with the heavy cannon in the short window after it completes a heavy attack. All of these enemies require precise aim and timing, and you will need to watch them closely to hit their weak spots at the right moment. The result is that The Ancient Gods often feels slower than the base game. You spend less time in the dance of combat and more time waiting for an opening. Over time, I got accustomed to this change of pace, but I don’t think that makes it a good one.

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That’s especially true because accuracy and high damage output are required to quickly dispatch the turret and Blood Maykr. As a result, I ended up leaning on the heavy cannon, Doom Eternal’s assault rifle, which also functions as a sniper. It’s a powerful antidote to both enemies, which means that in certain sections of the game, you will have little need for the rest of your deadly arsenal. In one late-game fight I noticed that I had hardly used the rest of my weapons at all. The Doom series is one of the few FPS holdouts that continues to reject aim-down-sights design in favor of speedy strafing. But The Ancient Gods Part 1 feels like it was built to showcase the Heavy Cannon–the one gun with a traditional scope. As a result, this DLC alternates uneasily between the all-out speed that Doom Eternal does so well and slower, careful sniping that stops the dance in its tracks.

Despite some new and enduring weak spots, Doom Eternal’s frantic combat (mostly) continues to shine through. Once you get back into the swing of the action, the rock-paper-scissors design philosophy still results in a great time. I just wish Doom Eternal could get out of its own way.

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Pikmin 3 Deluxe Review

By this point, nearly four years into the Switch’s life cycle, Nintendo has repackaged almost all of Wii U’s most noteworthy games for the system’s successor, with only a handful of holdovers yet to make the jump. Pikmin 3 is the latest Wii U gem to be dusted off and repurposed for Switch, and like other “deluxe” offerings, it arrives on the hybrid console packed together with all of its original DLC and a smattering of new content–in this case, a handful of additional missions starring series mainstays Olimar and Louie–making this the definitive version of one of the company’s most underrated titles.

Although the side story missions are the biggest selling point, Pikmin 3 has actually received a fair number of other tweaks in its move to Switch as well. There are new difficulty options, a hint system that helpfully nudges wayward players in the right direction, and other additions like badges–unlockable achievements that are doled out upon completing specific tasks or reaching certain milestones. These nips and tucks don’t radically alter the experience for returning players, but they do help make the game more inviting for newcomers, especially those who may not already be familiar with the series.

Even without any dramatic touch-ups, Pikmin 3 remains just as delightful now as when it first premiered more than seven years ago, thanks to its wonderfully idiosyncratic blend of strategy and adventure. The centerpiece of the package is the Story mode, which begins–just as previous games did–with a crash landing. This time around, you take control of three new explorers named Alph, Brittany, and Charlie, who embark on an expedition across the cosmos in search of food for their starving planet. En route, their spaceship is struck by a meteor, sending the crew plummeting to the planet of the Pikmin, and it falls to you to reunite the explorers, navigate the planet’s perils, and retrieve enough food to save their home world.

The ensuing adventure follows the same rhythm as previous Pikmin games. You land on the surface of the planet at the start of each day and spend the next 15 or so minutes retrieving treasures from the surrounding areas, shepherding your Pikmin back to base before the sun sets and the crew returns to the safety of orbit. The spacefarers you command in Pikmin 3 are largely helpless on their own; to accomplish any task, you’ll need to rely on your Pikmin, and it’s here the game’s strategy elements reveal themselves. Like its predecessors, Pikmin 3 is a game fundamentally about unit management. You’ll need to build up an army of Pikmin and use their abilities to achieve your goals.

Pikmin 3 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch
Pikmin 3 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch

Each strain of Pikmin boasts its own unique attributes, making them suited for certain situations. Red Pikmin, for instance, are resistant to fire and fierce fighters, while Rock Pikmin–one of two new breeds introduced here–are sturdier and capable of shattering crystals. Despite ostensibly being plant creatures, the Pikmin are more akin to ants; one alone is helpless in the face of the planet’s other wildlife, but in sufficient numbers they’ll be able to vanquish predators many times their size, clear environmental obstacles, and haul fruit and other treasures back to camp.

Although the general framework of the series remains unchanged, Pikmin 3 finds a comfortable middle ground between the hurried tension of the original Pikmin and the more leisurely pace of its sequel. Just as in the first title, you cannot explore the planet indefinitely in Pikmin 3; the length of your journey is dictated by your food supply. The crew consumes a bottle of juice at the end of each day, so you’ll need to have at least one ration on hand at all times to continue your expedition.

Fortunately, fruit is plentiful. You’ll find oversized strawberries, plums, and other delectables scattered around all corners of the planet, and each piece you retrieve will be turned into juice, making it easy to build up an ample supply and buy yourself more than enough time to explore. Some of these fruits will be waiting in plain sight, but most will require a bit of finagling to reach, which is where the joy of Pikmin 3’s gameplay systems is most potently felt. Retrieving the fruit will require you to negotiate the environment using the abilities at your disposal, with more areas opening up as you discover new types of Pikmin. There’s an almost Metroid-like sense of progression to the adventure. You’ll spot, say, a piece of fruit or a breakable gate just out of reach beyond a river in one of the early levels, encouraging you to return later on after you’ve acquired the means to access it. There’s a practical drive to explore, too; as you work your way across levels, you’ll discover and create shortcuts that offer a more efficient route back to your base, making exploration constantly rewarding.

The challenge and joy of the game comes from plotting out your objectives and utilizing the Pikmin to best effect. Multitasking is of the essence in Pikmin 3, particularly after you reunite the entire crew and gain the ability to switch between all three explorers on the fly. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you divide up your troops and retrieve multiple pieces of fruit from different corners of the map within a single day is immensely satisfying. This emphasis on multitasking also makes the newly added ability to play Story mode cooperatively a delight, as you can divide up and accomplish tasks much more efficiently with a second player controlling one of the other captains–though like Pikmin 3’s other modes, this is restricted to local play, limiting its usefulness.

Even without any dramatic touch-ups, Pikmin 3 remains just as delightful now as when it first premiered more than seven years ago, thanks to its wonderfully idiosyncratic blend of strategy and adventure.

Although the adventure isn’t particularly arduous, even on the hard difficulty, your fondness for the Pikmin themselves will add extra weight to your decisions. It’s hard not to grow attached to the little critters when you see the adorable way they scurry behind you and squeak as they hoist a fruit or fallen enemy, and it feels genuinely gutting when one perishes out of your own negligence. You’ll wince with guilt when a Pikmin is gobbled up by a monster or left behind at the end of the day due to your carelessness, and the game reminds you of your losses by keeping a running tally of all the Pikmin that have fallen over the course of your journey. Of course, sometimes losses are inevitable, and the game gives you the opportunity to replay a day should things not go as well as you’d hoped, so no misstep is completely irrevocable. The new Ultra-Spicy difficulty, however, is a different matter. Intended for veteran players, this setting caps the number of Pikmin you can have out in the field at 60, ramping up the challenge by severely limiting your troop size.

Complementing Story mode in Pikmin 3 Deluxe are the aforementioned new side story missions starring Olimar and Louie. These have the duo retrieving treasure to once again financially bail out their employer, and they’re enjoyable but ultimately a little underwhelming. Much like the challenges in the game’s Mission mode, the objective here is generally to collect as much treasure, fruit, and enemy carcasses as you can before time expires. Unlike in the main story, each of these missions is self-contained and starts you off with a set amount and types of Pikmin. That makes them much more about efficiency than exploration, as you’re only given a limited amount of time and resources to accomplish your task. This offers a different kind of appeal than the main adventure, and it feels genuinely satisfying to clear a map with a couple of minutes to spare through efficient multitasking. On the whole, however, these missions lack the exploratory hooks that make the Story mode so compelling, and they aren’t quite as appealing as a result.

Pikmin 3 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch
Pikmin 3 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch

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The same can be said of Mission mode in general, which offers three different types of smaller, self-contained challenges to complete, ranging from defeating bosses as quickly as possible to retrieving all the treasure in a level. They’re a fun way to extend the game’s longevity, but they feel ancillary to the adventure proper. Bingo Battle, likewise, is great fun if you have someone around to enjoy it with, turning the usual Pikmin gameplay into a head-to-head race to collect specific treasures. These contests quickly become hectic as you contend with not only roaming predators but enemy Pikmin as well, further illustrating how well Pikmin’s core mechanics lend themselves to different types of play. However, the lack of any online support hampers the mode’s appeal. Bingo Battle requires a second player, so if you don’t have someone around to enjoy it with, you’re out of luck.

Although Pikmin 3 Deluxe may not offer much in the way of substantial new content, the game still holds up wonderfully thanks to its unique gameplay and carefully constructed levels, and the tweaks and additions that have been implemented here help smooth over the whole package for newer players. Even three installments in, there is no other series quite like Pikmin, which helps Pikmin 3 still feel fresh seven years after its original release.

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Watch Dogs: Legion Review

Watch Dogs: Legion releases on Thursday, October 29. While we reviewed the game on PC, other outlets playing the Xbox One version have encountered overheating issues on Xbox One X. Ubisoft says it plans to release an update on October 30 that’s intended to resolve the issue.


Watch Dogs: Legion takes the foundations and ideas of its predecessors and expands upon them exponentially. The core conceit of Legion lies in the old adage of “strength in numbers,” which manifests in the game letting you recruit and play as nearly any character you come across, amassing a ragtag crew of freedom fighters. This open-ended stance to fighting the system is a significant change for the franchise, and it’s bolstered by improved hacking and social-engineering gameplay. Legion’s approach, while admirable, does have some unintended issues that make its powerful message of unity waver at inopportune times, but it still manages to make a profound statement about hope with its novel approach to player agency.

Legion is set in a near-future, more technologically advanced London. Longstanding hacker group DedSec has been framed for a series of bombings in the city, and its members are branded as terrorists. This, however, was all engineered by the mysterious rival hacker group known as Zero Day. In the chaos after the bombing, London and its citizens are effectively caught in the vice-grip of encroaching fascism and suffocating capitalism due to the occupation of Albion, a private military group, as well as criminal and corporate enterprises taking advantage of the power vacuum. With many key operatives dead or missing, DedSec London starts from scratch by crowdsourcing new members made up of like-minded citizens wanting to liberate the city.

The London in Watch Dogs: Legion is presented as a more advanced and exaggerated version of the real-life London. However, this interpretation of the city still reflects the present mood of 2020, albeit with more of a cyberpunk-dystopia aesthetic. The city’s history and its iconic landmarks are the backdrop for stark futurism. The majesty of Buckingham Palace and the bohemian charm of Camden are washed with parcel delivery drones, holographic advertisements, and self-driving cars that flood your line of sight. Of course, all of this also makes for an exciting playground for your hacking antics.

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In a game with multiple playable characters, the one constant that you’ll have across them is your connection to London itself. Each of the eight districts has its own varied cultures, demographics, and cultural stylings, making England’s capital city an exciting place to explore. It’s cool to see areas like the Tower of London and Piccadilly Circus recreated with stunning detail, and there’s something to appreciate in how much effort went into presenting the locales through a dystopian lens. The game manages to capture the history and the cultural diversity of London, while also juxtaposing it with the banality of evil represented by the presence of Albion, who detain citizens in plain sight.

Much of the flavor and atmosphere of the city is rooted in the now. With Brexit, weaponized social media, and far-right ideologies going mainstream, Legion effectively portrays the inherent angst and bewilderment at seeing your country fall slowly into chaos–poignant for the troubles of the present day. The main story deals with topics relating to nationalism, xenophobia, and which class of people should be in control. At times it can get unnerving to see how real life seeps into Legion’s story, especially when it comes to the inhumane treatment of immigrants.

The main story of Legion is heavy in its subject matter, feeling like a mix of Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. It grapples with themes around nationalism, capitalism, classism, and of course, policing. Although the execution is somewhat scattershot, the moments in which the game chooses to shine a light on these pervading issues can be sobering. The most notable example involves a guest appearance by British grime rapper Stormzy, who gives a rousing and powerful performance confronting systemic racism. He takes the stage and confronts the people with a truth of Legion’s world, and it packs a powerful punch because it reflects the realities of our own. “I am the one they fear the most,” he says. “I’m a black man with money.”

Through text messages, podcasts, and other supplementary means of delivering narrative, Legion lays bare even more of the issues plaguing society. Text messages reveal that Albion, effectively a police force, is targeting and harassing citizens in public, and recalling this information as you watch people out on the street fall victim to these practices can sting. Radio shows mock the in-game right-wing ideologies which, when described, sound ridiculous and the stuff of fiction, but aren’t all that far from what we hear in real life.

What really hits home about Watch Dogs Legion is that, as the cartoonishly bleak world comes into focus, it becomes difficult to ignore the immediate parallels to our own real-world society. Sure, it might not interrogate the issues and explore the nuances with a great deal of depth, but the broad strokes of the brush are enough to blur the line between fiction and reality, and at that point you have to confront just how far our own society has fallen. Ubisoft games have often used real-world politics as set dressing, but on this occasion, it feels like a genuine attempt to at least identify the problems it is leveraging as narrative milieu and present their cold hard truths.

For the most part, the main narrative does a good job of tackling these topics, but the impact is lessened somewhat because of the open-world format of the game. The game’s scope is too wide to deliver its messages in a sharp and concise way. As a result, the 25-hour main plot can feel like it drifts into the periphery as the core narrative becomes secondary to the moment-to-moment actions and events that occur when the open-world mechanics are at work. The knock-on effect is that the side activities are left to do a lot of the heavy lifting on exploring the nuance in these themes, which they do reasonably well.

Like previous games, Watch Dogs: Legion hinges on the familiar loop of open-world gameplay, which entails exploration, combat, stealth, and in-game narrative events. While Legion uses a more streamlined hacking system, it leans much further into the systemic effects of hacking and manipulating social threads to fulfill your goals. Depending on how you utilize the city’s ctOS infrastructure–which consists of cameras, phones, computers, AI drones, and other machines you can hack–you can accomplish many of your goals with your enemies being none the wiser, giving you the sense that you’re always on a heist.

Watch Dogs: Legion reaches its highs when channeling elements of immersive sims, where many of your choices can cascade into a satisfying chain of reactions that yield the desired result. Hacking is your core connection to the world, and it opens up many clever opportunities when it comes to figuring out how to achieve your present goals. In one mission, I came up to an enemy base that had a vehicle I had to recover. While I could have snuck in, knocked out the guards with my non-lethal instruments, and taken the vehicle, I instead went with a more elegant solution. Using the cameras, I was able to remotely examine and download data keys from their tablets to gain access to the base’s gates. With the gates now opened, I hacked into the vehicle and had it accelerate forward out of the base. I made a dash for the car and rode off while the guards were left stewing in their confusion. All of this was done without ever setting foot in the base, and it felt incredibly satisfying getting the best of them. Coupled with the randomly generated playable characters, Legion presents many interesting opportunities to take advantage of, and its core gameplay represents the prospect of the Watch Dogs hacker fantasy at its best.

Legion’s true stars are London’s citizens, all of whom are randomly generated based on various professions, ethnic backgrounds, and other personalized details. The previous games allowed you to learn cursory information about citizens around you, but in Legion, you can use this information to scout prospects. Depending on if they favor DedSec, they’ll ask you to complete minor objectives to seal the bond. In a clever mechanic, the citizens of London will remember and react to decisions you make. For example, I was surprised a potential recruit disapproved of DedSec because a different character I played as accidentally hit them with a car–the game even makes note of this in their file.

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With such a vast list of characters, you’ll likely find yourself leaning on a select few operatives as your A-team, especially if they are gifted when it comes to hacking, driving, or melee combat. Still, Legion has a way of tossing in a curveball recruit that could be in the running for your new favorite. A particular standout for me was a gold-painted performance artist who could hide in plain sight to complete his goals–and collect tips while he was at it. It can be bizarre seeing what sort of characters you can pull in on your crusade, and it’s solid fun getting to use whatever skills they have in some critical missions to succeed by the skin of their teeth.

While each operative is capable, missions can and will likely turn sour after a wrong decision, resulting in all sorts of enemies coming down on you with assault rifles and combat drones. Even failing recruitment missions can set you back, prompting you to work extra hard to get back into a potential candidate’s good graces. Adding to this stress is the option to enhance the campaign to include permanent deaths for your operatives–meaning once they fall in a mission, they’re gone for good. It’s a clever addition that adds a bit more realism and a greater sense of consequence to the campaign, which can make some of the more daring missions feel more stressful, especially knowing that losing a favorite operative will leave a lasting sting. But even without permadeath, the difficulty can still be quite challenging, with failure taking your operative out of the game for a set amount of time.

I often found myself falling down a rabbit hole to gain new operatives and explore more of the city to complete the laundry list of objectives required to recruit them. In some cases, I found members of my team kidnapped by their own personal rivals, and I had to undergo an impromptu rescue mission–all of which was randomly generated. The game’s constant stream of characters and the opportunities that pop up certainly makes it inviting to break off on tangents to meet the requirements needed to recruit them. However, you’ll eventually also fall into a repetitive loop of recycled objectives and dialogue set in all-too-familiar areas, albeit with different voice overs. This repetition also makes London feel a bit small, considering the amount of ground you’ll have to retread constantly. As engaging as it is to constantly bounce around characters, over time, Legion’s many wacky excursions can also give rise to periods of aimlessness without a centralized viewpoint and structure to guide you.

Watch Dogs: Legion does a lot to confront topics like fascism, inequality, and the idea that new technology exposes and amplifies old fears and hatred.

And while these characters have great personalities on the surface, they can appear mismatched for the moment and context of what’s happening. This can lead to some unexpected and bizarre shifts in tone. For example, during one of the game’s more haunting plot threads, DedSec unearths an underground organ-harvesting operation, with its products coming from kidnapped immigrants who are kept in a detainment camp located within London. On its own, this is an incredibly gut-wrenching and profound moment where the game’s drama and narrative chops are hitting its highs. However, I made the unfortunate choice of using one of the more flashy characters in the lead-up to this mission–a cosplayer who wears a bright reflective jacket and glowing holographic cat ears. Seeing her walk down the dark and bloody hallways was jarring and undermined the moment. When you couple this with the aimless structure, it can be easy to detach from what’s going on or not buy into the sense of urgency the narrative wants you to believe there is.

In moments like this, the overall narrative and tonal issues that Watch Dogs: Legion has can force their way to the front of mind, but the core gameplay of hacking the world, making connections, and seeing your favorite operative succeed is satisfying enough that it makes it easier to not get hung up on them. The main story hits some impressive highs during the latter half thanks to the aforementioned Stormzy mission and the podcasts, emails, and even chats with your fellow DedSec members that tackle the heavier subject matter. At its best, Legion manages to stay on message while keeping things fun and exciting. And in some ways, the goofy absurdity of Legion’s characters and wacky side activities feels like an appropriate match for the sad absurdity of Legion’s world.

In the past, Ubisoft has had an unfortunate history of missing the mark when it comes to utilizing real-world events, politics, and other hot-topic issues for the backdrop of their games. However, Watch Dogs: Legion does a lot to confront topics like fascism, inequality, and the idea that new technology exposes and amplifies old fears and hatred. Legion not only does an effective job of showing the banality of evil in plain sight, but also, in a more optimistic light, shows how the citizens look to London’s culture and to each other to overcome oppression.

Watch Dogs: Legion is an anti-fascist game, and it’s admirable that it sticks to that message and sees it through to a satisfying and affirming conclusion. It also bolsters the franchise’s clever hacking gameplay to offer more creativity than ever. One of Legion’s more profound messages is about what it means to be a true Londoner, and by the game’s end, you’ll have a DedSec crew made of wildly diverse and disparate citizens from unique cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds–all united in their goal to restore their home. If anything, that’s as powerful a message for the game as you can get.

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Now Playing: Watch Dogs: Legion Video Review

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Ring Of Pain Review

Ring of Pain is a roguelike card game that’s too damned creepy to not live rent-free in your head long after you’re finished. You play as someone trapped in darkness, unsure of who can help you out and who intends to lead you into ruin. The constant uncertainty leaves you always second-guessing yourself, while the action manages to keep you firmly in the moment as you juggle satisfying risk-reward choices. This balance of feeling both powerful and vulnerable–but in different ways depending on your choices–manages to shake up potentially repetitive attempts to navigate the rings of cards in your efforts to escape this eerie, unsettling world.

Each run in Ring of Pain starts out largely the same: It’s just you and a circle of cards that probably want to kill you. Two cards in the circle are in the foreground and can be viewed and interacted with immediately. Cards feature an interesting array of spooky creatures that can be fought or dodged, items to be collected and equipped, stat boosts, potions, curses, or doors to be passed through into another new dungeon ring. There’s a menagerie of different cards to come across, which keeps you constantly on your toes and never too sure of what to expect–but there are still patterns and hints to the madness, such as themed dungeons that keep things purposeful rather than totally random. The rings cycle through depending on your actions–you might find a card that shuffles the ring, or a card might cycle itself through the ring to chase you–and how you choose to navigate them will determine your play style.

You don’t have to clear a ring to move to the next stage, just to get to a door. You have your own base stats, which change based on the items and boosts you find and equip. It’s best to think of yourself as a sort of customizable creature card with slots augmented by what you find. Most of the equipment will have basic stat augments, but others will offer interesting strategies like gaining health from curses or knocking back creatures after an attack. Each little factor can greatly determine how effective you are in satisfying ways that alter available strategies. The knock-back ability can make slow but devastatingly strong enemies a total non-issue as they no longer have a chance to attack, while without it even sneaking past them can be risky business.

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All of your stats match up against actual creatures to determine how much damage you’ll deal and take as you fight your way through, and you can really see your character grow in strength as you change your build. The more cards you see may mean more items or other helpful things to find and add to your strength, though they may also be traps or deadly enemies. You earn souls for defeating creatures, which can be spent to unlock chests and occasionally purchase items or stat upgrades. This means cleaning out rings can offer great rewards, though there’s genuine risks to your hubris. When you’re weak, sneaking through rings just trying to survive and find a potion or helpful item feels fantastically desperate. When strong, just charging through and defeating everything before moving on it feels really powerful and somewhat diabolical.

However, it can turn very quickly. Some enemies can do a surprising amount of damage, attack from further back in the sequence of cards, explode, poison you, or just block your path. Usually they look disturbing as hell with globular bodies or weird spikes or those terrible ones with the far-too-long arms that actively chase you down. Even worse, they might be a cute puppy or frog whose souls you may need to decide to steal. They also make disturbing noises when they attack, with squelchy screams and slashes that add to the already ominous background music. Often you’re never as safe as you think you are, and there’s an immense sense of risk versus reward. It feels like the right balance of power and uncertainty given the intensely creepy and somewhat helpless setting.

What makes it enjoyable is how much each run can change. Despite being quite a repetitive game by design, the different items and stat boosts can dramatically impact how things play out. Not only do they alter basic things like your attack, defense, and speed–which will determine how well you do when battling cards–but they can also offer other interesting buffs like earning souls quicker, healing when hit by explosions, or doing damage when gaining health. Your game knowledge grows with each playthrough often in surprisingly eye-opening ways, even many hours in. You may spend your first few playthroughs generally stumbling through the darkness and likely dying a lot, as intended. But there’s a genuine sense of understanding that grows as you experience more playthroughs and get a taste of what you can accomplish.

The runs themselves are quite quick, and you’ll usually at least add a new item to your roll list for your trouble. These add more options to your arsenal and some may be stronger than others, but success is definitely more in how you use what you’ve found rather than the power of the items themselves. I still often die less than a few minutes in, and those times where I’ve made it all the way to the end tend to take 20-30 minutes. It’s great to pick up and play, but it means if you’re completing multiple in succession, which you probably will do, it’s very easy to forget your loadout. Your items are all clearly displayed and look unique even if just in small ways. Still, in the midst of a few runs it can be pretty easy to forget that this chest piece, for example, isn’t the one that protects from explosions like you were just wearing in your previous run. This can often cause early and frustrating deaths. Being able to jump straight back in immediately for a new run helps mitigate the frustration, but dying doesn’t always feel fair. There have been a fair few times where I haven’t totally understood why I died, whether it was because of different effects chaining together or unexpected damage–it all happened too quickly to be sure what exactly went down, despite the helpful end screen that tells you what technically dealt the final blow.

But I also get the impression that’s absolutely part of the point. Ring of Pain doesn’t exactly hold your hand. It does a good job of generally telling you what your actions will do by showing the damage you’ll take and inflict, but it doesn’t account for everything. You’ll often need to die to a creature to learn about it. For example, there are some that transform after a few turns and suddenly block your exit, and running into them the first time without knowing is deeply frustrating.

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You’ll eventually come to learn what might await when going through different doors, but there’s no real explanation or guarantee. The shrines you stumble across in safe yet still somehow unnerving areas will often have to be used, sometimes multiple times, before you discover what they mean. There’s a nice sense of proficiency that comes from learning these things, but it’s not without frustration. I’m still not entirely sure about what the endings mean, what this world is meant to be, or much at all, really. But while Ring of Pain is dark, esoteric, and obscure, the gameplay loop is simple and satisfying in ways that allow it to still be fun–even once you’re a bit past the intrigue.

Ring of Pain is interesting and enjoyable in ways that can keep you enthralled despite doing almost the exact same thing for hours. The quick runs are really nice for just jumping in and having a few goes rather than oversaturating yourself with this world. It nails the creepy aesthetic from the art and sound design right down to the way it plays. It can make you feel a bit unsettled no matter what stage of the game you’re at and how confident you’re feeling. Ring of Pain swings between frustration and satisfaction but thankfully leans heavily to the latter most of the time. It’s a delightfully disturbing mix of roguelike and card game genres that’s worth stumbling in the darkness to discover.

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Ghostrunner Review

Ghostrunner‘s intense first-person parkour platforming demands perfection. Whether you’re clearing out a neon cityscape of cyberpunk goons or racing on walls and sliding through vents of a gigantic factory, even a small miscalculation will get you killed. Your jumps need to be precise. Every swing of your sword should be deadly. Anything less isn’t up to robot ninja spec. Ghostrunner is quick to punish, but it’s also more than willing to reward players who rise to its challenge. Bouncing from wall to wall feels like flying. Running circles around gunmen, dodging bullets, and cutting them down without a scratch is exhilarating. It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation: Struggling with failure after failure, even on simple tasks, is incredibly frustrating early on, but that anger eventually dissipates as your skill grows to reveal a thrilling test of your abilities.

Set in a cyberpunk-style post-apocalyptic world, Ghostrunner puts you in control of a robot ninja assassin on a mission to kill his world’s authoritarian ruler. (She also nearly killed him a while back, so it’s a twofer! Revolution and revenge.) There’s a twisty, turny plot, but it’s often very detached from what you’re actually playing, as it’s told almost exclusively through voiceover.

Ghostrunner adheres quite closely to tenets of cyberpunk’s visual aesthetic. You run through dirty dilapidated cities with dark corners, contrasted with neon signs and bright screens lighting up the night. Some of the enemies you face are literal cyborg punks. Don’t worry; there are also plenty of robots. There have been enough cyberpunk stories in games that this look isn’t especially fresh, but that doesn’t stop it from looking cool. It helps that, on a technical level, Ghostrunner looks very sharp. The environments, enemies, and your sword, which is always sticking out in front of you, are all incredibly detailed. It may not be the most creatively constructed, but it is appealing all the same.

Ghostrunner captured on PC
Ghostrunner captured on PC

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Despite the fact that you control a robot ninja assassin and much of the game revolves around killing, Ghostrunner is, first and foremost, a first-person platformer. Every sequence, whether it includes combat or not, features paneled walls for you to run across, rails for you to slide down, and conveniently placed loops compatible with your grappling hook to let you do some superhuman parkour. Chaining these maneuvers seamlessly allows you to build up speed, which keeps enemies from landing their shots and lets you make bigger jumps, powering even larger, bolder maneuvers. Many of the areas, especially platforming sections without enemies, are designed to let you stay mobile. When you are in a fight, speed is power: Dancing around enemies and dodging bullets makes you feel like an unstoppable force, doubly so when you take everyone out without missing a step.

Combining the wall-runs, dashes, slides, and other maneuvers to move around the world seamlessly takes sustained focus and quick reflexes. You have to aim your jumps precisely before moving from one element to the next, while also keeping an eye on the path forward so you know where you’re going. The faster you move, the less time you have to aim before you jump, so it becomes harder to stay in control the longer you stay mobile; a poorly aimed or mistimed jump can send you flying past a platform. Even a tiny miscalculation can cost you momentum and leave you exposed to enemy fire. The demands of traversal lead to a lot of frustrating deaths early on but make success incredibly rewarding. Being able to jump around a combat arena without losing speed makes you feel masterful.

The combat in Ghostrunner is really an extension of the platforming, though it rarely feels that simple. Almost every enemy dies with a single strike. If you get close enough to the enemy to slash them, they’re dead, so the challenge is in the approach, not the fighting itself. There are a decent number of enemy types, each of which has a unique skill set that creates an interesting new wrinkle you’ll need to account for in a fight. Though many of them are straightforward–there’s a soldier with a shield, a ninja who needs to be parried, and so on–they are still tricky to dispatch and require precise timing. Every encounter deftly blends environmental hurdles and new sets of enemy types to make every level feel exciting from one section to the next, even as you effectively do the same thing over and over.

Ghostrunner captured on PC
Ghostrunner captured on PC

In fairness, it isn’t just “sword tag.” You get some combat-focused abilities that give you more options for dealing with enemies. First and foremost, your dash allows you to briefly slow down time to sidestep an enemy bullet at the last second. You also get a series of special attacks, including a “blink” dash that lets you slice through multiple enemies and bullets in a straight line, and a projectile-reflecting shockwave. Each of the four abilities gives you an interesting way to create new opportunities for yourself, whether it’s lining up enemies to take them down in one fell swoop or drawing fire, just to reflect it.

Learning to use those tools, how to run, and how to play Ghostrunner is a painful process at times. The Ghostrunner is a glass cannon–a single hit will kill you–and most platforming runs require tight timing. The only way to “practice” your moves is to fail and try again, so you can expect to die a lot. (Luckily, reloading your last checkpoint on PC is nearly instantaneous). Even when you don’t die, it can be frustrating to have to break a parkour run because you couldn’t figure out where to go next without stopping to look around. If you’re like me, and your reflexes aren’t esports-class, it takes dedication (and some muscle memory) to complete an area without making a fatal error. The satisfaction of doing it is worth the effort, but there’s some anxiety and bitterness mixed in with the excitement and awe.

When Ghostrunner rips, it really rips. Wall-running, jumping, sliding, and cutting through enemies as you go is empowering and impressive. For a good portion of the game, you’ll only experience how impressive it feels to dart around a room in short bursts, but even that’s enough motivation to keep you pushing forward to master the art of robot ninja parkour. There’s bound to be a lot of frustration along the way, so it isn’t all smiles, exactly, but the rush you feel in the moment as you perfectly run a room is worth the grit.

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Amnesia: Rebirth Review

Back in 2010, developer Frictional Games set the tone for PC indie horror games with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Focused heavily on story, it created its scares through an intensity of atmosphere and an emphasis on powerlessness. With Amnesia: Rebirth, it feels like Frictional has fully refined its particular approach to horror. You’re trapped in a deadly, smothering world, struggling against your character’s limitations and even her perceptions. Rebirth is Frictional’s best game yet, marrying a deep, mysterious story to the signature mechanics the developer has been refining over the course of 13 years of horror games.

Amnesia: Rebirth continues Frictional’s specific approach to story and horror, which emphasizes avoiding conflict, hiding, and mastering your character’s own fear. It also adds to the story told in The Dark Descent, although you don’t need to know that game well to follow this narrative of this one. (The narrative doesn’t link to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the 2013 follow-up to The Dark Descent.) You play Tasi Trianon, a French woman who joins a mining expedition to Algeria in 1937. In the opening moments of the game, the expedition’s plane experiences some supernatural shenanigans that cause it to crash in the desert. Tasi wakes up soon after, alone in the plane, with few memories of what has happened and strange black tendrils creeping into her vision. As she goes searching for survivors, she discovers that the strange bracelet she wakes up wearing can open portals to a dark, ruined parallel world. Tasi goes searching through caves and tunnels for her friends, and the story often pulls her into the alternate dimension as she tries to find her way forward.

Rebirth brings back the main mechanics from The Dark Descent, and really, all of Frictional’s games deal in similar sets of ideas. You trace the survivors’ path, gathering notes and uncovering clues as to what happened. As you explore the caves, you’re quickly plunged into darkness, and as in The Dark Descent, the dark increases Tasi’s fear and has palpable effects on her psyche. You’re not dealing with a loss of sanity that changes how you perceive the world like in that game, however. Instead, Tasi’s increasing fear causes the black tendrils to reappear and her heart to start pounding, and if she gets too afraid, the blackness overtakes her entirely, causing her to lose herself and wake up somewhere else with no memory of how she got there.

The darkness plays on Tasi’s fears as a mechanic, while playing on yours by driving most of the game’s scares. The more frightened Tasi becomes, the less reliable her senses. You’ll start to see frightening flashes across the screen as she becomes more terrified, and Rebirth plays off your inability to see much around you with sound design that emphasizes the echoing, oppressive nature of the places you work through. As in past games, the game works to escalate your fear by messing with your perception as the protagonist sees more and more creepy stuff is an effective vehicle for scares. As things are getting spooky or dangerous, images start to flash in your vision to create jump scares, and the addition of sounds and movement in your periphery make it tougher to trust your senses. You’re constantly hearing things that might be lurking just outside of your vision, and Rebirth works on you by making it difficult to tell if those things are hallucinations, ambient noise, or actual dangers waiting in the dark.

Your primary goal is to push forward, driving back the darkness with whatever light sources you can scrounge up, in order to keep Tasi’s fear under control and assess which threats are real and which are imagined. Scattered everywhere are books of matches you can find by exploring the environment, usually by checking under or inside objects. Matches quickly burn out if you light them and try to move around, but you can use them to ignite torches, candles, sconces, and other light sources as you explore. You’ll spend a lot of your time lighting every flammable thing you can find, but this has the drawback of leaving you with fewer places to hide from whatever is making those upsetting chewing sounds somewhere beyond your vision.

Like in Frictional’s other games, you can interact with most everything you see in Rebirth, and in fact, you have to simulate real-world motions with either your mouse or a controller in order to perform basic actions like opening a door or moving an object out of your way. Other than managing lighting, the major mechanical thrust of Rebirth is using these physical interactions to solve puzzles that block your progress, which are often unraveled by paying careful attention to the environment around you for clues. While none of the puzzles are especially difficult, it’s definitely possible to get stalled here and there as you search for a solution that’s not immediately intuitive. For the most part, though, the obstacles Rebirth throws in your path are inventive without being annoying, asking you to do things like locate the chemicals you need to improvise an explosive or find a smart way to pass a short cable through a wall.

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While you’re exploring, reading notes, solving puzzles, and managing Tasi’s terror, you’ll also have to contend with actual terrors hiding in the shadows. Like the other aspects of Rebirth, your encounters with the game’s threats feel like refined versions of similar experiences in The Dark Descent and Frictional’s last spooky title, Soma. You can’t fight the monsters skittering in the dark; you can only hide or flee from them. That mandate leads to a variety of frightening chases through tight confines and stealthy moments as you sneak past something horrifying while it hunts you, balancing using shadows to hide yourself and keeping Tasi’s fears from overwhelming her.

It’s in these brushes with supernatural horrors that Rebirth represents the biggest step forward for Frictional Games. Your only measure of how Tasi is faring is her increasing heartbeat and the black encroaching across her vision as her fear rises; there’s no health to deal with in Rebirth and so no items needed to maintain it. If a creature catches you, it doesn’t kill you, forcing you to reload a checkpoint and pretend nothing happened. Instead, if things get bad enough, the black tendrils overtake Tasi and you find yourself somewhere else. You’ll sometimes have to try to complete a task, run through a set piece, or solve a puzzle a second time if you’re caught while in the middle of it, but by and large, Rebirth doesn’t create a bunch of failure points that force you to replay a section of the game over and over. It goes back to the message that opens Rebirth: “This game should not be played to win.” It’s also not designed to beat you, but to keep you engaged with Tasi’s story.

It might sound like Rebirth’s lack of enemies that can kill you means it lacks stakes, but the game still does a good job of creating frightening moments. What it removes, however, is the frustration that some players have felt in Frictional’s past games. The developer responded to criticisms of Soma by adding a story-focused difficulty mode after its release, which kept the game’s monsters but removed the risk of getting killed and returning to a previous checkpoint. Rebirth works that conceit straight into its design, and it feels like a natural evolution. This is a game about a spooky story, and while horror games work to create moments of fear and tension, a lot of what makes them frightening gets eliminated in the repetition of playing the same section of the game over and over.

Storytelling is Rebirth’s real focus, although the intricate tale it tells is undercut somewhat by the limitations of small games and the trappings of first-person horror. Most of the game is about Tasi finding her way alone, reading notes, and remembering tidbits of stories that happened off-screen. Those flashbacks are largely presented as dialogue over Tasi’s still drawings, and that can make it tough to understand or connect with the many characters mentioned along the way. Things pick up in the second half of the game as Tasi starts to actually catch up to some of those characters in the present, but the flashback presentation means that you’re often left going, “…who?” when Tasi mentions a name, remembers an interaction, or delves into a conversation.

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Much better realized is Tasi’s personal story, which focuses on her experiences as a mother. Tasi’s relationship with her daughter Alys, her husband Salim, and the traumas of her past inform a lot of her actions as Rebirth progresses, although it’s not until late in the game that you really start to understand Tasi as a character (mostly due to the whole “she has amnesia” thing). Rebirth is unabashedly a “mom game,” and it is at its best when Tasi’s personal journey intersects with the supernatural goings-on as it explores the responsibilities of motherhood. Like Frictional’s other titles, it also occasionally puts you in unsettling situations and asks you to make tough decisions about who Tasi is and what she should do to survive. Those moments conjure up a different, uncomfortable sort of horror, although the game delivers the illusion of more agency than it actually offers–there are only a couple of big choices along the way and it’s not clear they actually make much difference in terms of how the story unfolds.

Though sneaking past or fleeing from monsters is often harrowing, there are moments when encounters won’t quite terrify. Like in the developer’s other games, the creatures are sometimes easy enough to slip past that they seem kind of dumb, and one or two chases move fairly slowly through the environment, making it apparent you’re not really in as much danger as the game would like you to believe. The limitation that you can’t actually look at enemies because it drives up Tasi’s fear can also seem a bit arbitrary, and Rebirth has a couple of big moments that feel like they’d be trivial if you could actually see what you were avoiding.

Still, Amnesia: Rebirth feels like the culmination of Frictional Games horror titles up to this point. It refines the ideas and mechanics that have been central to the developer’s games since Penumbra: Overture in 2007, it hones in on effective scares while avoiding the frustrations of failure, and it tightens the focus on character-driven storytelling. Rebirth is an unsettling, strange, tragic story that deepens the Amnesia mythos in a lot of cool ways, while managing to be just as creepy and frightening as its beloved predecessor.

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Ring Fit Adventure Review: One Year Later

Editor’s note: Ring Fit Adventure first released on October 18, 2019. Because we were unable to review the game back then, we’re taking this opportunity–the one-year anniversary of its release–to give it a full evaluation now. In this review, Jenae Sitzes reflects on a full year of on-and-off workouts with Nintendo Switch’s premier fitness game.

Over the past decade-plus, Nintendo has established itself as the home for fitness games. Wii Fit and its enhanced version, Wii Fit Plus, have together sold over 43 million copies worldwide, so it was only a matter of time before the company attempted to replicate that success on Nintendo Switch. Fortunately, Wii Fit’s successor is far more ambitious than many people may have anticipated. Released one year ago on October 18, 2019, Ring Fit Adventure is not Wii Fit 2.0, but rather a full-blown fitness RPG with an overarching story, skill tree, and vibrant, lively landscapes. Not only is it far more ambitious in terms of scope than its predecessor, but it also fosters a healthier attitude toward fitness and a friendly tone that’s relentlessly encouraging without a hint of judgment, even when it’s been weeks–or even months–since you last logged in.

In Ring Fit Adventure, you team up with a magical pilates ring to track down and defeat an evil bodybuilding dragon named Dragaux, who is spreading a dark influence across the land. In your pursuit of Dragaux, you jog through beautiful landscapes and engage in turn-based battles against fitness-themed monsters (such as a feisty dumbbell or mischievous yoga mat). In order to attack or defend, you’ll have to perform exercises, and the game eventually introduces type matchups–some monsters will be particularly weak to leg moves, for instance. With four different move types available (leg, arm, abs, and yoga), Ring Fit Adventure provides a great full-body workout, and even though some levels may focus on one muscle group over the other, the option to use different move types keeps workouts balanced and prevents you from tiring out too quickly.

Navigating a level with help from Ring and Tipp in Ring Fit Adventure.
Navigating a level with help from Ring and Tipp in Ring Fit Adventure.

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Type matchups are only one aspect of combat strategy in Ring Fit Adventure, however. Food items play a key role as well, from smoothies that regenerate your health and revive you to soups and teas that provide certain buffs, like boosting the attack of all arm moves or converting your move type to yoga. If you get into a battle you’re not prepared for type-wise, these items can literally save you. Outside of combat, there’s even a skill tree where you can unlock new moves and increase your stats, and every world has a shop where you can buy new apparel to boost your attack or defense as well as ingredients to cook more food for your battles. In this way, every aspect of Ring Fit Adventure feeds into making you stronger and giving you more tools to use in battle beyond simply equipping enough arm moves or leg moves. Ring Fit’s embrace of its RPG elements keeps progression varied and interesting over months of playing the game, and you’ll continue to unlock new moves, recipes, and abilities late into the game–it never gets stagnant. This makes the gameplay much more engaging than just following along to moves on a screen, and especially in boss fights, having the right items available and the best moves equipped can mean the difference between success and a KO. The fact that you can actually lose a fight (rather than simply being scored, like in other fitness games) is particularly motivating, engaging you both physically and mentally to give each battle your all.

At the center of Ring Fit’s combat is the Ring-Con, a real-life pilates ring that connects to one of your Joy-Cons (while the other slips into a leg strap to go around your thigh). The Ring-Con is remarkably sturdy and has held up well over the past year, with no noticeable change in its resistance or durability. That’s impressive considering how much you pull and squeeze the Ring-Con throughout the game’s lengthy campaign. Whether you’re pressing it against your stomach for an Ab Guard or lifting it overhead for a tree pose, the Ring-Con is at the center of nearly every move, tracking your precise movements. As in other Nintendo exercise games like Fitness Boxing, I’ve found that you really can’t half-ass these exercises. In Ring Fit, ignoring proper form means your attacks will do less damage, and if it’s a defensive move, you risk taking a devastating hit. This not only keeps the stakes high in-game; it also makes sure you’re getting the most out of your workout and helps prevent injury. Some of these moves can be tricky to get right, but in-game, you have your trusty Ring giving advice on how to do each move correctly with plenty of encouragement.

Ring Fit Adventure encourages you to listen to your body, to understand its needs and to not push yourself beyond your limits.

Ring Fit Adventure has an unwavering cheerfulness to it, and while that’s certainly true of many first-party Nintendo games, it has a deeper impact in the context of a workout game. It’s so easy to get down on yourself when you miss a workout or two, and as someone with severe anxiety, sometimes I just can’t muster the will to do anything at all, let alone get strapped up for a Ring Fit session. There can be such a negative energy around exercise and the expectations to be consistent or look a certain way, but Ring Fit Adventure throws that all out the window. It goes out of its way to make you feel welcome and accepted, no matter what fitness level you’re at or how long it’s been since your last workout. When you boot up the game, it simply asks you if you’re feeling sore at all from the last session and if you want to adjust the difficulty at all. Rather than urging you to keep hiking up the difficulty, the game simply accepts your answer and even asks if it’s annoying to keep asking. Don’t want to stretch with Tipp, your friendly in-game trainer, today? No problem–the game simply takes you back to where you were in the campaign. The removal of pressure to do certain activities or make gameplay harder lets you improve at your own pace and prevents exercise from taking on a negative connotation as it so easily can in the real world.

There’s also a convenient “quiet mode” option for those who either prefer not to or physically can’t jog in place. Aimed at those who may have neighbors living beneath them or need to keep noise minimal for some other reason, quiet mode allows you to do a series of squats rather than jogging in place as your character dashes through Ring Fit’s worlds. Not only is this feature helpful for not bothering others, it also lends to the game’s accessibility, as jogging is a high-impact exercise that may not be possible for everyone, including those with lower-body injuries. The ability to decrease the game’s difficulty setting at any time and select exactly which exercises you want to do also allows you to customize your workout to suit your needs.

Still, I’ll admit there’s a level of forgiveness in the game that could be counterproductive to growth if you lack the motivation–and perhaps it’s part of why I’ve only played around 35 hours over the past year. Ring Fit Adventure encourages remarkably short sessions, prompting you to “take a break” and cool down so you’re ready to go again tomorrow. Sometimes, I’ll exercise for only 10 minutes or so before getting this message reminding me not to overwork myself. It’s in line with Ring Fit’s cheery, positive tone, but this is a fitness game, after all, and experts recommend that the average adult gets at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Unless you decide to ignore Ring Fit’s prompts and keep playing, the game is happy to let you cool down after completing just one world or two and go about your merry way. As someone who picked up Ring Fit to challenge myself and improve my fitness, this messaging has definitely influenced me to have shorter sessions and, as a result, not progress as much as I may have otherwise over the past 12 months.

Ring Fit Adventure frequently reminds you not to push yourself too hard.
Ring Fit Adventure frequently reminds you not to push yourself too hard.

These prompts to take a break and not overdo it play into what Ring Fit Adventure is trying to say about health and fitness overall, though, and that’s a much bigger part of what makes it not only a great fitness game, but also an important successor to Wii Fit. Gone is the problematic BMI metric, which isn’t an accurate measure of health or body fat percentage and can have detrimental effects on body image. Also gone is the emphasis on how much weight you want to lose and how many calories you’ve burned. Instead, Ring Fit Adventure encourages you to listen to your body, to understand its needs and to not push yourself beyond your limits. It doesn’t just provide a good–and entertaining–workout; it fosters a healthy attitude toward fitness, nutrition, and overall well-being. For example, there’s no mention of calories around food; instead, food items help you grow stronger and literally revitalize you. Daily tips at the end of every session remind you to get plenty of sleep and to avoid training when your body feels bad. Meanwhile, Dragaux, the epitome of toxic workout culture, represents the dangers of focusing solely on your gains and constantly competing with others instead of focusing on your individual health and needs. By rejecting fitness as a goal in itself and instead embracing personal health and growth, Ring Fit Adventure provides a much more achievable and fulfilling experience.

The best part is that there’s just so much of it, too. Ring Fit has 23 main worlds and an extensive post-game that takes you through the previous worlds with new dialogue and harder levels. It also comes with minigames that you can play freely outside of the campaign along with custom workouts that let you focus on specific moves you want to master or muscle groups you want to work on. A free rhythm mode was added earlier this year, though I found it disappointing–the song selection is lacking and the movements themselves, which involve pushing and stretching the Ring-Con at different angles, feel awkward and not fun. Still, there’s plenty to keep you busy with Ring Fit long after you finish the main story, and even doing that will take you some time–I haven’t beaten the game yet myself after one year (though it obviously depends on how often you play and the length of your sessions).

By rejecting fitness as a goal in itself and instead embracing personal health and growth, Ring Fit Adventure provides a much more achievable and fulfilling experience.

Like many people, I’ve relied on Ring Fit Adventure as my only method of getting any exercise for most of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. After sitting inside my tiny apartment day after day, moving from bed to chair to couch, I was always grateful to be able to pick up my Ring-Con and go jogging through Ring Fit’s luscious, vibrant landscapes. Though there’s no straying from the preset path in each area and many of the worlds do look quite similar, they still feel great to jog through. As someone who grew up running and prefers it as a form of exercise, I will say that cardio feels minimal in Ring Fit Adventure compared to strength training. Outside of these short jogs in between battles, there aren’t many activities aimed at getting your heart rate up, which is why Ring Fit Adventure probably shouldn’t be your only source of physical activity. It offers a fantastic workout and supplement to any gym routine, but it can’t beat going for a real run or long swim or bike ride. I bought a fold-up apartment treadmill a couple of months ago, and it’s been great to switch between Ring Fit and the treadmill on different days to feel like I’m getting enough cardio along with working my muscles.

Ring Fit Adventure builds on the legacy of Wii Fit in important ways, not only pushing the limits of what a workout game can be but also repositioning its message around fitness in a much healthier and constructive way. Fitness isn’t a steady, consistent journey for most people; it’s full of tiny improvements and setbacks and obstacles that get in your way, much like one’s progress in an RPG. Because of this, Ring Fit Adventure works perfectly both as a concept and in practice. The sheer volume of content along with new abilities, items, and difficulty levels keeps progression interesting through the entire campaign and beyond. With consistently engaging gameplay, gorgeous landscapes, and a relentlessly positive attitude, Ring Fit Adventure has set a new standard for fitness games, and I look forward to another year of growing stronger with it–and eventually beating that absurdly buff dragon.

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Ikenfell Review

Ikenfell is a magical school in its seemingly natural state: peril. Students have gone missing, strange trees are cropping up, and other magical anomalies plague the land. As Mariette, the non-magical yet still worried sister of one of Ikenfell’s students, you embark on a journey through this pixelated 2D RPG adventure to save her, the school, and maybe the whole world. A number of interesting ideas in both story and combat make Ikenfell an appealing prospect, but since some prove stronger than others in execution, ultimately it’s a journey with more than a few bumps in the road.

As the game begins, Mariette almost immediately gains supernatural pyromantic abilities thanks to strange magical occurrences. It actually feels a bit at odds with the message of not needing to be magical to be heroic, which throws the vibe off kilter right from the beginning. The conceit does make sense within the context of the story, though, and sets out one of the first mysteries in the game. New forms of magic are cropping up, and even some who previously had no magical powers suddenly find themselves wielding elemental magic. Mariette can use her new fire power to take on the various magical enemies of Ikenfell in turn-based isometric grid battles, with a bit of a twist.

Ikenfell captured on Nintendo Switch
Ikenfell captured on Nintendo Switch

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Combat is a fairly large part of the game and is mostly turn-based. Turns are split between a movement phase, where you position your team on the battlefield, and then an attack phase where you select from combat options that have their unique ranges and damage, and sometimes added effects. Starting out you’ll have basic attacks which do moderate damage to a single enemy in front of you on the grid. As levels are gained, party members added, and moves are unlocked, more strategies and styles open up.

The strategy really gets quite flexible as no two moves from any party members are the same; they each have their own skill sets which suit their characters. The impulsive electric wielder can teleport in and out of danger quickly, whereas the timid alchemist has limited range and does best at healing or poisons. Even though I eventually found myself settling on the party of three I preferred, I still found myself using the full selection of their moves in different battles. This is thanks to the wide variety of enemies which all can be approached in a variety of ways. I tended to use poison and regeneration spells in long fights against high-HP enemies, for example, rather than bombarding them with direct damage. For heavy hitters I’d make note of their attack patterns and position my crew accordingly, which would change the feasible attacks. The mechanics are simple but present enough strategic considerations and opportunities to keep the formula feeling relatively fresh over time.

The twist to the battles is that, while turn-based, they incorporate timed elements. Each attack and even each defensive maneuver will have its own unique animation and timing. Despite being relatively simple pixel art, some of these are just gorgeous and filled with personality. Hitting the button in time with the animation and sound will determine how successful your attacks are. Some may do more damage, while others may need solid timing to inflict status effects. When defending, timing a button press to the block will reduce your damage.

In the beginning, I really enjoyed this system. While the early battles were easy, simply having something to give me a boost made me feel a sense of mastery over the combat. Timing something right just feels good, almost like you’re flicking your wrist in the final moment of casting a spell or actively bracing for defense at the crucial moment. It also makes spells you’re consistently good at really feel like your own, like your practice has paid off. However, timing something badly is frustrating and with so many different attacks from both sides to learn, it can be tricky to get it right consistently. The timing elements mean you always have to be aware of what’s happening on the battlefield and not being able to pause during battles requires a high level of diligence.

The impact of how successful you are at timing is immense, which makes it a bit double-sided in that failing them can work against you as much as success can work in your favor. The clutch mechanic, which allows you to survive a lethal blow on successful defense, means it’s literally a life and death difference. As I went further through the game I ended up swapping the option in the settings to semi-auto, giving me a bit more leeway, and I much preferred it. This change got rid of some of the more unfair-feeling losses from timing that I swear I had nailed and it encouraged me to experiment without the fear of losing outright. You can also turn it completely off, and while I didn’t prefer that option, it’s an important one to have to make the battles more accessible.

Alongside battling, there are also puzzles to solve. Most are fairly standard in that you might need to flick a series of switches, push rocks around, or gather specific items. They’re usually the right amount of challenging to make you think without leaving you stuck, and they provide a nice break between battles. However, some just feel purposefully obtuse. Once I had to look for books in the library and I just ended up interacting with all the shelves until I found them–there didn’t appear to be a marker or strategy to help. Sometimes there are invisible paths with little to signal them other than, “I guess I’ll just try walking through this wall.” In that way, Ikenfell can sometimes feel as confusing as it is magical.

Battles and puzzles take place all over the school grounds and the surrounding areas of Ikenfell. Each area has its own lovely chiptune themes to match the environment. The battle music doesn’t tend to change, though, and as you’ll enter into so many of these it can get repetitive–except when it transitions into a few voiced songs for specific character moments to show off their personalities and intentions. Unfortunately, these aren’t very good and can be incredibly jarring when it happens mid-game. I often found myself turning the volume down during these sections.

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The story has you explore different dungeons in the form of classes, dorms, libraries, and more as you try to find your sister and work out what’s going on. All the different areas offer new backdrops, enemies, and puzzles to solve. I feel like every time I was getting bored with one place, Ikenfell would usher me into another with a fresh set of exploration opportunities. The variety is lovely but it also has a very “Sorry, your princess is in another castle” feel, where I always felt strung along thinking the story was close to ending but it just kept going. Naturally, this started to feel tedious at times. The drip-feed of story progression drifts into slow and unrewarding for your troubles at times.

The story itself is just kind of odd. It’s definitely a direct parody of Harry Potter, though somewhat gender-swapped and queer as all get out. But the same plot holes that plague the halls of Hogwarts are still present here. Students are somehow as powerful, or sometimes more than, teachers and engage what’s described as incredible feats of magic. Teachers let them and don’t seem to have any desire to be particularly helpful, despite the end-of-the-world stakes. They may be intended as humorous nods, but in effect come off as incongruous.

Despite this, Ikenfell has some interesting takes. It explores the kind of toll the actions of a heroic group of do-gooders, not unlike the trio from Harry Potter, is bound to take on a school. What about the people that get hurt for their brazen actions? How much stress does this kind of constant danger put on all of those meant to care for these students? What does a really progressive, queer-positive fantasy world like this even look like? And how does it feel to be excluded from this magical world as an ordinary person? There’s some unexplored ideas to the magical fantasy that deserved looking at, and Ikenfell does its best.

Ikenfell made me feel like it wanted to really care about these important issues, but it does nothing to explore them.

Unfortunately, the execution struggles at times, with things feeling a bit forced. For a game all about caring for each other, all you can really do is fight things and beat the crap out of them. A few times characters will even say things like “I’m so gay” after the story has already plainly shown us they are and most of the other characters are attracted to the same sex. Why is being gay a big deal in this world? Was there queer oppression? It’s ripe with queer internet culture but with no real anchor to the context within the fantasy world. This makes it feel tacked on as an afterthought rather than an authentic representation of real people.

Ikenfell made me feel like it wanted to really care about these important issues, but it does nothing to explore them. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall in odd ways to lampshade these ideals, but without context or relevance it often feels shoehorned in rather than true representation. I can see the beating heart of good intentions and ideas, but they ultimately feel fumbled.

Ikenfell is a game of good intentions. The take on RPG combat is both satisfying and interesting with enough options, both with in-game tweaks to characters and strategy and also directly within the settings, to help tailor it to your preferences. It just drags on a bit without feeling like anything has actually really happened until its final moments. The nice variety and wholesome vibes present a lovely little world to explore and save. There are just enough little pitfalls in the story and execution that can be quite grating when I wanted to feel immersed.

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NHL 21 Review

EA was supposed to release NHL 21 during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but complications due to COVID-19 led to a delay. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup weeks ago, and as a result, ice hockey has escaped the wider public sports consciousness as other leagues take hold. But NHL 21 is a compelling reason to care about hockey again, as this year’s game delivers a major improvement to the story mode, adds a flashy new arcade-style mode in HUT Rush, and makes the on-the-ice gameplay better than ever thanks to a series of new skill moves that let you play with more style.

Be A Pro 2.0

The biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the expanded and improved Be A Pro. After NHL 20 delivered basically no updates on the career-focused mode, NHL 21 offers a huge step forward thanks to a cinematic-style campaign of sorts, where you create a character and guide them through their career, beginning in either Europe or the Canadian Hockey League and competing for a spot in the NHL. The story beats play out through non-voiced dialogue sequences and cutscenes with coaches, media, and teammates. The main choices you make come from the Team or Star paths, and both have pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options to shape your career in the way you want to.

As an example, my agent called me to ask if I wanted to attend a charity event for a wildlife protection company. I chose the “Team” response, and my brand rating improved because the simulation suggested my fans would see this as a sports star being humble and genuine. However, choosing this option came with a negative effect, too, as my agent told me it was a noble choice but I should also plan for my life after hockey and try to make as much money in my prime as possible. I enjoyed the struggle of making these choices, and I found myself choosing one option and then loading a previous save to see how things would have played out differently. The choices you have to make can be real head-scratchers and they generally seem believable and taken from real-world headlines. But while the conversation system and cutscenes are generally enjoyable and a step up from the past iterations of Be A Pro, they are at times very cheesy and contrived, so the conversations and their impact don’t always resonate.

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I started my Be A Pro season in the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup, and it was an enjoyable challenge to start my career as a low-level, poorly rated player who had to compete well with what few shifts I was given to win over my coach and teammates. Very few hockey players have a meteoric rise; it’s often a slow grind, and this is faithfully represented in NHL 21’s Be A Pro. The aim is to make it to the NHL by performing well enough to get signed by a team in the draft. To that end, NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode delivers a multitude of feedback systems to help you improve. During games, a coaching system gives you live feedback about how you’re performing and what you need to do better. After each game, a detailed statistics page populates with even more information and shows you sliders that represent how much further you need to go to improve.

You can tailor your player to your liking with NHL 21’s skill tree system, allowing you to decide what type of player you want to be and then building a skill profile that focuses on anything you want. As I got better and better, I enjoyed seeing my player grow and evolve with their OVR rating rising, and the intuitive feedback systems helped me to understand what to prioritize to become a better player and teammate.

The rest of what makes Be A Pro so great this year are the more subtle improvements and attention to detail. There is a new radio show featuring NHL 21 commentator James Cybulski, who is a radio host in real life. It plays while you’re moving through the menus and completing tasks like assigning skill points, checking the calendar, and tracking your progress, and it’s exciting to hear Cybulski speak about what happened during the previous week and shower you with praise or discuss your less-than-ideal performance with his witty and informative commentary. It’s a natural-sounding broadcast show, complete with Cybulski taking callers and flubbing his dialogue in some cases just as it would happen in real life.

There is also a new Salary Perks option that lets you decide what to do with your earnings, which can become significant as you progress through your NHL career. Some of the options include supporting charities, buying cars and houses, or even investing your money into app development, and they impact your player’s ratings, which further encourages you to invest in your player’s life off the ice. For example, buying a sports car gets you a limited-time buff toward speed on the ice, while hiring a lawyer gets you +2 aggressiveness, which is pretty silly but fun to see at the same time.

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NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode is a far cry from the Longshot and The Journey modes from EA’s Madden and FIFA games, respectively–which are far more fleshed out and include voiced dialogue–but what is there for NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode is entertaining and feels like a first step, and one that I hope EA builds upon in the future.

Dangle Game Upgrades

On the ice, NHL 21 excels yet again. The big new additions to the gameplay mix this year are a series of skill moves that make NHL 21 even more true-to-life and faithful to where the real NHL is at these days. Players like Alexander Spechnikov, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin are wowing fans with their skills, and this has seemingly inspired the flashy new skill moves in NHL 21. The new slip and chip dekes are relatively simple to execute, and they are useful for getting around defenders in the open ice. The bank net self-pass, which Crosby made famous, is particularly helpful to quickly change directions and keep defenders guessing. The more challenging dekes, the “no-move move” and the lacrosse goal, are aimed at the highest-skilled players and I found them to be extremely difficult to pull off. The lacrosse goal in particular is the hardest deke in the game–and it should be, given that it’s only been performed in real life on camera a handful of times.

The new skill moves are a welcome and enjoyable part of NHL 21, but they are not overpowered, and you don’t necessarily need to use them to score goals. Like in real hockey, the majority of goals that are scored are the result of playing with speed, making hard passes, and putting in the effort to fight for the puck. It’s a thrill to pull off some of the new skill moves during a game, especially against human opponents, but I scored the most goals–and had the most goals scored against me–by breaking the defense down with speed and making good and smart passes. Like in previous years, cycling the puck and waiting for a cross-crease scoring opportunity is the best way to win, even if it’s not the flashiest way to do so.

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Also of note, your AI teammates, along with defenders, are smarter and more capable this year. In comparison to NHL 20, I found the AI to make better choices and skate together at a more capable level, and this contributes to making NHL 21 feel even more authentic to the sport.

AI goalies are smarter in NHL 21, too–they get into position and reading shots better than last year, and as a result I found myself scoring fewer “cheap” goals, which helps make the game feel more true-to-life. The sloppy goals from previous games can still happen, but I experienced fewer of them in NHL 21. Several new desperation animations for goalies have been added this year, too, and they elicit some jaw-dropping sequences just as they do on a TV broadcast.

There is still some weirdness to be found in NHL 21’s gameplay. Player models do not always react to the action on the ice in a natural-looking way–there can be horror-show clips of players knocking into each other and limbs bending in inhuman ways, for example. And it’s disappointing that the player models and the crowd animations are largely unchanged from last year. But these shortcomings are few and far between, and they don’t negatively affect the experience in a consequential way.

Excellent Controls And Detail

The controls in NHL 21 are once again phenomenal. Using the recommended skill stick controls, the gamepad feels like an extension of your stick, and the controls feel intuitive and simple to grasp across the wide variety of moves you can perform. In particular, I found that poke checks are remarkably represented in NHL 21, providing a fine level of control to break up passes and give your opponents headaches as they try to enter the zone or make a move.

Elsewhere, NHL 21 delivers subtle improvements to the presentation that help the game look and perform more realistically. Jerseys generally look more like the real deal, featuring crinkles on them that give the appearance that they are actually worn instead of just slapped onto the character model. The animations, too, appear smoother this year, especially the backskating and pivoting animations that are fluid almost to a level of a TV broadcast. Some of the skating animations are still a bit wonky, but for the most part NHL 21 has a stunning package of realistic-looking animations that ice hockey fans will appreciate.

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The attention to detail in NHL 21 is impeccable and makes the game feel like a true representation of hockey culture. PA announcers during intermissions talk about hot dog giveaways, commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro have an excellent rapport and effectively balance being informative and entertaining at the same time. The way a player looks over their shoulder when entering the circle for a faceoff, how the crowd noise crescendos into a roar during the third period when the game is close, and how the ice creaks and cracks when playing on ponds are just a few examples of how NHL 21 successfully captures the spirit of hockey by getting the small details right.

HUT Rush

In addition to the updated Be A Pro, the other biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the HUT Rush mode, which is a great addition to the Hockey Ultimate Team mix. A less serious, more arcade-style mode, HUT Rush challenges you to rack up the highest score by completing skill moves and chaining them together for multiplier points. HUT Rush makes you play differently–no longer are you trying to score goals the basic way, because that won’t be good enough.

In HUT Rush, it’s all about playing with style and using the new skill moves to do so. HUT Rush ties into the new skill moves nicely, providing an avenue for which to put the new skills to good use. There is a social competition element to HUT Rush as well, as your high scores go on a leaderboard that resets weekly, and I found myself coming back just in the first week to see how my stats compared to the global playerbase.

Hockey Culture

There are a multitude of modes to play in NHL 21 depending on what kind of experience you want, and I enjoyed the variety. Beyond the traditional 5v5 mode and the aforementioned HUT Rush and Be A Pro, the Threes and Ones modes return, and they remain as engaging and fun as ever with their less serious, more stripped-down mechanics. World of Chel returns as well, and this online mode succeeds in creating a hub of sorts for you to create a character and develop them. In World of Chel, you compete against other human players with leaderboards, a battle pass-style cosmetic system, and other progression rewards that represent the carrot to keep chasing. Hockey Ultimate Team offers literally hundreds of challenges to take part in, and this is before you even begin competing with other humans in online versus modes.

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The Franchise mode, however, sees only minimal updates–the main new feature, a trade deadline simulation, doesn’t end up feeling very satisfyingly tense and demanding as you race to make trades against the clock. That said, Franchise remains a very strong offering that lets you live out the fantasy of being an NHL GM as you make all manner of choices to help your team succeed, from identifying draft picks, to maintaining and repairing the toilets in your stadium’s bathrooms, to keeping your fans happy. You need to manage just about everything, and it can be a real head-scratcher to have to make decisions that might be good for your organization but bad for player morale. In that way, it feels realistic and true to the experience of the dilemmas that a real NHL GM might face.

Simply put, NHL 21 represents a gigantic offering with each distinct part bringing something to the table that shows off a different corner of the hockey world and its culture. And speaking of culture, NHL 21 introduces new banners that pop up to tell you that offensive team names and other toxic behavior will not be tolerated. Further, NHL 21 has built-in player-reporting tools, so you can quickly and easily report offensive user-created team names you may come across. The NHL video game series and the sport it’s based on is known to have a diversity and toxicity problem, and it’s good to see EA take a step in the right direction to weed out some of the bad actors. However, with the game’s online modes only just getting properly populated now, it’s too soon to say if these reporting tools will be effective in thwarting bad behavior.

NHL 21 is a fantastic ice hockey game that pushes the series forward with an enjoyable, engaging story mode in Be A Pro and a flashy, arcade-style way to play with HUT Rush. The new skill moves are a welcome addition to the mix to give players new ways to be slippery and keep defenders guessing, but the best part of NHL 21 is its solid foundation thanks to its excellent controls and presentation package that is getting even closer to mirroring a TV broadcast.

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NHL 21 Review – Score

EA was supposed to release NHL 21 during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but complications due to COVID-19 led to a delay. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup weeks ago, and as a result, ice hockey has escaped the wider public sports consciousness as other leagues take hold. But NHL 21 is a compelling reason to care about hockey again, as this year’s game delivers a major improvement to the story mode, adds a flashy new arcade-style mode in HUT Rush, and makes the on-the-ice gameplay better than ever thanks to a series of new skill moves that let you play with more style.

Be A Pro 2.0

The biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the expanded and improved Be A Pro. After NHL 20 delivered basically no updates on the career-focused mode, NHL 21 offers a huge step forward thanks to a cinematic-style campaign of sorts, where you create a character and guide them through their career, beginning in either Europe or the Canadian Hockey League and competing for a spot in the NHL. The story beats play out through non-voiced dialogue sequences and cutscenes with coaches, media, and teammates. The main choices you make come from the Team or Star paths, and both have pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options to shape your career in the way you want to.

As an example, my agent called me to ask if I wanted to attend a charity event for a wildlife protection company. I chose the “Team” response, and my brand rating improved because the simulation suggested my fans would see this as a sports star being humble and genuine. However, choosing this option came with a negative effect, too, as my agent told me it was a noble choice but I should also plan for my life after hockey and try to make as much money in my prime as possible. I enjoyed the struggle of making these choices, and I found myself choosing one option and then loading a previous save to see how things would have played out differently. The choices you have to make can be real head-scratchers and they generally seem believable and taken from real-world headlines. But while the conversation system and cutscenes are generally enjoyable and a step up from the past iterations of Be A Pro, they are at times very cheesy and contrived, so the conversations and their impact don’t always resonate.

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I started my Be A Pro season in the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup, and it was an enjoyable challenge to start my career as a low-level, poorly rated player who had to compete well with what few shifts I was given to win over my coach and teammates. Very few hockey players have a meteoric rise; it’s often a slow grind, and this is faithfully represented in NHL 21’s Be A Pro. The aim is to make it to the NHL by performing well enough to get signed by a team in the draft. To that end, NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode delivers a multitude of feedback systems to help you improve. During games, a coaching system gives you live feedback about how you’re performing and what you need to do better. After each game, a detailed statistics page populates with even more information and shows you sliders that represent how much further you need to go to improve.

You can tailor your player to your liking with NHL 21’s skill tree system, allowing you to decide what type of player you want to be and then building a skill profile that focuses on anything you want. As I got better and better, I enjoyed seeing my player grow and evolve with their OVR rating rising, and the intuitive feedback systems helped me to understand what to prioritize to become a better player and teammate.

The rest of what makes Be A Pro so great this year are the more subtle improvements and attention to detail. There is a new radio show featuring NHL 21 commentator James Cybulski, who is a radio host in real life. It plays while you’re moving through the menus and completing tasks like assigning skill points, checking the calendar, and tracking your progress, and it’s exciting to hear Cybulski speak about what happened during the previous week and shower you with praise or discuss your less-than-ideal performance with his witty and informative commentary. It’s a natural-sounding broadcast show, complete with Cybulski taking callers and flubbing his dialogue in some cases just as it would happen in real life.

There is also a new Salary Perks option that lets you decide what to do with your earnings, which can become significant as you progress through your NHL career. Some of the options include supporting charities, buying cars and houses, or even investing your money into app development, and they impact your player’s ratings, which further encourages you to invest in your player’s life off the ice. For example, buying a sports car gets you a limited-time buff toward speed on the ice, while hiring a lawyer gets you +2 aggressiveness, which is pretty silly but fun to see at the same time.

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NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode is a far cry from the Longshot and The Journey modes from EA’s Madden and FIFA games, respectively–which are far more fleshed out and include voiced dialogue–but what is there for NHL 21’s Be A Pro mode is entertaining and feels like a first step, and one that I hope EA builds upon in the future.

Dangle Game Upgrades

On the ice, NHL 21 excels yet again. The big new additions to the gameplay mix this year are a series of skill moves that make NHL 21 even more true-to-life and faithful to where the real NHL is at these days. Players like Andrei Svechnikov, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin are wowing fans with their skills, and this has seemingly inspired the flashy new skill moves in NHL 21. The new slip and chip dekes are relatively simple to execute, and they are useful for getting around defenders in the open ice. The bank net self-pass, which Crosby made famous, is particularly helpful to quickly change directions and keep defenders guessing. The more challenging dekes, the “no-move move” and the lacrosse goal, are aimed at the highest-skilled players and I found them to be extremely difficult to pull off. The lacrosse goal in particular is the hardest deke in the game–and it should be, given that it’s only been performed in real life on camera a handful of times.

The new skill moves are a welcome and enjoyable part of NHL 21, but they are not overpowered, and you don’t necessarily need to use them to score goals. Like in real hockey, the majority of goals that are scored are the result of playing with speed, making hard passes, and putting in the effort to fight for the puck. It’s a thrill to pull off some of the new skill moves during a game, especially against human opponents, but I scored the most goals–and had the most goals scored against me–by breaking the defense down with speed and making good and smart passes. Like in previous years, cycling the puck and waiting for a cross-crease scoring opportunity is the best way to win, even if it’s not the flashiest way to do so.

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Also of note, your AI teammates, along with defenders, are smarter and more capable this year. In comparison to NHL 20, I found the AI to make better choices and skate together at a more capable level, and this contributes to making NHL 21 feel even more authentic to the sport.

AI goalies are smarter in NHL 21, too–they get into position and reading shots better than last year, and as a result I found myself scoring fewer “cheap” goals, which helps make the game feel more true-to-life. The sloppy goals from previous games can still happen, but I experienced fewer of them in NHL 21. Several new desperation animations for goalies have been added this year, too, and they elicit some jaw-dropping sequences just as they do on a TV broadcast.

There is still some weirdness to be found in NHL 21’s gameplay. Player models do not always react to the action on the ice in a natural-looking way–there can be horror-show clips of players knocking into each other and limbs bending in inhuman ways, for example. And it’s disappointing that the player models and the crowd animations are largely unchanged from last year. But these shortcomings are few and far between, and they don’t negatively affect the experience in a consequential way.

Excellent Controls And Detail

The controls in NHL 21 are once again phenomenal. Using the recommended skill stick controls, the gamepad feels like an extension of your stick, and the controls feel intuitive and simple to grasp across the wide variety of moves you can perform. In particular, I found that poke checks are remarkably represented in NHL 21, providing a fine level of control to break up passes and give your opponents headaches as they try to enter the zone or make a move.

Elsewhere, NHL 21 delivers subtle improvements to the presentation that help the game look and perform more realistically. Jerseys generally look more like the real deal, featuring crinkles on them that give the appearance that they are actually worn instead of just slapped onto the character model. The animations, too, appear smoother this year, especially the backskating and pivoting animations that are fluid almost to a level of a TV broadcast. Some of the skating animations are still a bit wonky, but for the most part NHL 21 has a stunning package of realistic-looking animations that ice hockey fans will appreciate.

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The attention to detail in NHL 21 is impeccable and makes the game feel like a true representation of hockey culture. PA announcers during intermissions talk about hot dog giveaways, commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro have an excellent rapport and effectively balance being informative and entertaining at the same time. The way a player looks over their shoulder when entering the circle for a faceoff, how the crowd noise crescendos into a roar during the third period when the game is close, and how the ice creaks and cracks when playing on ponds are just a few examples of how NHL 21 successfully captures the spirit of hockey by getting the small details right.

HUT Rush

In addition to the updated Be A Pro, the other biggest new addition for NHL 21 is the HUT Rush mode, which is a great addition to the Hockey Ultimate Team mix. A less serious, more arcade-style mode, HUT Rush challenges you to rack up the highest score by completing skill moves and chaining them together for multiplier points. HUT Rush makes you play differently–no longer are you trying to score goals the basic way, because that won’t be good enough.

In HUT Rush, it’s all about playing with style and using the new skill moves to do so. HUT Rush ties into the new skill moves nicely, providing an avenue for which to put the new skills to good use. There is an online element to HUT Rush as well, with new events promised to be added weekly.

Hockey Culture

There are a multitude of modes to play in NHL 21 depending on what kind of experience you want, and I enjoyed the variety. Beyond the traditional 5v5 mode and the aforementioned HUT Rush and Be A Pro, the Threes and Ones modes return, and they remain as engaging and fun as ever with their less serious, more stripped-down mechanics. World of Chel returns as well, and this online mode succeeds in creating a hub of sorts for you to create a character and develop them. In World of Chel, you compete against other human players with leaderboards, a battle pass-style cosmetic system, and other progression rewards that represent the carrot to keep chasing. Hockey Ultimate Team offers literally hundreds of challenges to take part in, and this is before you even begin competing with other humans in online versus modes.

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The Franchise mode, however, sees only minimal updates–the main new feature, a trade deadline simulation, doesn’t end up feeling very satisfyingly tense and demanding as you race to make trades against the clock. That said, Franchise remains a very strong offering that lets you live out the fantasy of being an NHL GM as you make all manner of choices to help your team succeed, from identifying draft picks, to maintaining and repairing the toilets in your stadium’s bathrooms, to keeping your fans happy. You need to manage just about everything, and it can be a real head-scratcher to have to make decisions that might be good for your organization but bad for player morale. In that way, it feels realistic and true to the experience of the dilemmas that a real NHL GM might face.

Simply put, NHL 21 represents a gigantic offering with each distinct part bringing something to the table that shows off a different corner of the hockey world and its culture. And speaking of culture, NHL 21 introduces new banners that pop up to tell you that offensive team names and other toxic behavior will not be tolerated. Further, NHL 21 has built-in player-reporting tools, so you can quickly and easily report offensive user-created team names you may come across. The NHL video game series and the sport it’s based on is known to have a diversity and toxicity problem, and it’s good to see EA take a step in the right direction to weed out some of the bad actors. However, with the game’s online modes only just getting properly populated now, it’s too soon to say if these reporting tools will be effective in thwarting bad behavior.

NHL 21 is a fantastic ice hockey game that pushes the series forward with an enjoyable, engaging story mode in Be A Pro and a flashy, arcade-style way to play with HUT Rush. The new skill moves are a welcome addition to the mix to give players new ways to be slippery and keep defenders guessing, but the best part of NHL 21 is its solid foundation thanks to its excellent controls and presentation package that is getting even closer to mirroring a TV broadcast.

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