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Diablo II: Resurrected Review – Pile Of Old Bones

It’s impossible to talk about action role-playing games without mentioning Diablo II. The original release of Blizzard’s sequel in 2000 was an inflection point for the nascent genre, defining the direction all games after it would take. It’s one of those games whose DNA you can still trace in modern ARPGs such as Path of Exile, Lords of Wolcen, and the eventual Diablo III. But it’s also a game that has been drastically improved upon in the two decades since its release, which makes its 2021 remaster a confusing re-release that does very little to address how the genre has evolved since, making it challenging to recommend over modern contemporaries outside of reasons of nostalgia or short-lived curiosity.

Like all of the games it would eventually inspire, Diablo II is a dungeon-crawler, albeit stripped down to the genre’s fundamental basics. You progress through the campaign over a series of acts, each contained within their own map. These maps have distinct areas and enemy-ridden dungeons you’ll need to explore, eliminating scores of enemies that drop all sorts of color-coded loot that help you get more powerful as you go. The more you progress, the stronger you become, allowing you to deal the damage required to take down incredibly dangerous bosses that provide a challenging climax to each act. The campaign is also not the end of your journey, with additional difficulties incentivizing you to restart and continue crunching enemy skulls for more powerful loot, and so on.

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Now Playing: Diablo II: Resurrected Video Review

Where Diablo II differs strongly to its most recent entry, Diablo III, is in its role-playing. Here you’re given three separate skill trees to invest points into, each of which will go a long way in defining what type of style your chosen class will take. My Necromancer, for example, focussed on summoning the dead over dealing out curses and magical damage, which led me to invest most of my skill points in only one of the three trees. You additionally need to manage staple role-playing attributes like strength, dexterity, vitality, and more, although these don’t function as you might expect. Points in each mostly determine what gear you can equip, and not necessarily how much damage (physical, ranged, or magic) you deal. This can be initially counter-intuitive to how you imagine each point invested will play out, with established Diablo II players already knowing that the majority of these points need to go into vitality and little else if you can already equip all the items you need.

This is an early indicator as to what type of remaster Diablo II: Resurrected is. At its heart, it’s a pure recreation of the original release, idiosyncrasies and all, with every bit of content that launched in the early 2000s. It includes the base game and its four acts, as well as the Lords of Destruction expansion as a bonus (and lengthy) fifth one. These blend seamlessly with each other in a way that may make you question how they were sold separately to begin with, given the events of the original game’s finale and how the expansion acts as a satisfying epilogue to the entire journey. These acts are also incredibly meaty, with numerous quests, both mandatory and optional, to undertake, many of which require you to scour the expansive procedurally generated hubs that make up each act.

Having these layouts change whenever you log back into the game gives each one a small degree of replayability, but only if you’re looking to shake things up as you grind towards your next level in order to make more meaningful progress. Diablo II’s balancing hasn’t been changed at all, which makes this a necessary routine. Especially as you progress to the harder difficulties, the gaps in its challenge become more apparent. Acts where you’re tearing through regular enemies at a comfortable pace will come to a screeching halt when you encounter some bosses, who can wipe you out with just a handful of attacks. There’s no warning beforehand that you’re unprepared for the battle ahead, which only serves to make the penalty of death sting even more. You still drop gold and all your gear when you die, and having to daringly make your way back to your body to retrieve them remains as frustrating as it was originally.

There is, in fact, very little that has changed mechanically in Diablo II: Resurrected in a bid to retain as much of the classic feel as possible. There’s so much about Diablo II’s design that is hidden from you, whether it’s the lack of damage numbers letting you gauge the effectiveness of a gear change, or the puzzling reason behind your numerous missed attacks. The stamina bar also hasn’t been tweaked, meaning a lot of the early game will require you to stop running and stare at it as it slowly fills up (this is thankfully negated after the first two acts as you start building up more vitality points, but never truly goes away unless you dedicate time to popping stamina potions frequently).

Diablo II’s character builds, with their respective strengths and weaknesses, have also not changed, which means the game remains as punishing as ever should you not commit wholeheartedly to a specific type of build. The freedom of choice when it comes to which skills to level up is stripped away when you realize how rigid the overall difficulty forces you to be, punishing wayward choices hours later with few options to rectify them. You do get one free skill respec per character per difficulty, and can gain others through a lot of grinding, but it’s an unwelcoming system for newcomers to the game, and especially fans looking to enjoy an earlier entry after starting with Diablo III.

The control schemes sit in a weird middle ground, with neither one offering a satisfying interpretation that is up to modern standards, and making actual play feel clunky in one regard or another

On PC, you still don’t have a dedicated hot bar for spells and abilities, and instead, have the slots for left and right-click actions. You can assign keys to specific abilities to rotate them into your right-click slot, but it’s nowhere near as elegant as a traditional hot bar that more modern ARPGs use to organize your abilities. Curiously enough, you do get a dedicated hot bar when playing with a controller, letting you quickly cast abilities with up to 12 dedicated buttons (six on one bar, and another six when you pull the left trigger). Using a controller, then, would’ve surprisingly been the preferred way to play, despite the title’s place in the annals of mouse-and-keyboard PC game history, had it not been for Diablo II’s reliance on accuracy when casting abilities, which controllers just aren’t up to the task for in most cases. A controller is, additionally, a really poor way to navigate the inventory, which you will be doing a lot of the time. The control schemes sit in a weird middle ground, with neither one offering a satisfying interpretation that is up to modern standards, and making actual play feel clunky in one regard or another.

It’s understandable why mechanics like these haven’t been changed beyond the need to adhere to the original design. Diablo II and its systems, like many other games of this ilk, are a house of cards, where small changes in one area can have unexpected consequences in a completely different one. It’s easy to empathize with the notion that a classic like this shouldn’t need to be altered, but it doesn’t make the process of playing it any easier. Small creature comforts, like stackable potions or more inventory space over the paltry amount that you cannot upgrade, would do wonders for removing a lot of the tedious back and forth travel you’re forced to do between your objective and your inventory stash, for example. But that’s not how Diablo II played, and that’s why Diablo II: Resurrected doesn’t either, which will either delight or weigh on you depending on your established love for its design choices.

What has changed, and drastically so, is how Diablo II: Resurrected looks. It’s a striking transformation, with all the details and flourishes that modern hardware affords. Lighting spells fill the screen with their destructive, arcing fury, while distinct details on the variety of nasty creatures you’ll face come alive in a way the pixelated original just couldn’t possibly manage. The extent of the work done to the game can be appreciated by toggling back to the original presentation, which you can do with a press of a button at any time. It’s eye-opening to see how the game’s tone and mood have hardly shifted, and just how powerful the dreary and hopeless feel of it all was beautifully communicated even with the visual limitations in mid-2000. Diablo II: Resurrected pulls off the delicate trick of looking like what your memories might think Diablo II looked like at launch, and it’s consistently a treat for the eyes.

Some accessibility changes have also been made, such as aids for colorblindness and increases in the legibility of the game’s text. Graciously, gold pickups are now automatic, which removes some of the strain associated with clicking all the little piles that appear once you’ve killed a large group of enemies. Smaller changes, like the ability to have text appear when an attack misses or changing some key bindings from presses to holds, shows a willingness to allow modern sensibilities to creep in and improve on the experience of playing Diablo II, and since they’re all optional, they go a long way to welcoming new players while staying out of the way for returning ones.

It’s what makes the overall package such a confusing one to recommend. On the one hand, Diablo II: Resurrected ticks all of the boxes that a modern remake should: It remains faithful to the original and doesn’t mess with what came before, giving players familiar with Diablo II and its idiosyncrasies a new, strikingly gorgeous way to enjoy the adventure all over again. It’s also a reminder, in some ways, of what was missing from Diablo III, with its darker look and well-defined tone sure to appease those who found Blizzard’s eventual sequel too bright and full of color.

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But on the other hand, it remains an unwelcoming experience for many players whose only reference to this series is its latest entry. Those who come from a background of being able to freely experiment with character builds while also reaping the rewards of a power fantasy associated with bombarding enemies with abilities at ease will struggle to appreciate the slower pace of Diablo II’s combat, while also feeling shackled by its rigid builds that don’t forgive careless skill point spending. Diablo II is such a different game from its sequel that it will undoubtedly be a shock for those who come into it expecting more of the same click-and-loot loop, but it’s also one that does the bare minimum to make a case for itself in a bid to try and win you over. Resurrected feels squarely aimed at those who have already poured hundreds of hours into this genre-defining title, or those willing to do that additional homework of reading up on its quirks ahead of time to avoid falling into the trap of building a non-viable character.

It’s why, unlike Diablo III, I don’t foresee myself spending a lot more time with Diablo II: Resurrected. That’s not to say the adventure was without merit, and it’s certainly great to have a way to play one of Blizzard’s classics with a coat of paint that does its visual aesthetic justice so many years later. But outside of players already well-versed with the game’s aged design choices and imbalance, there’s not a lot here outside of a history lesson for new players to enjoy. A lot of the time spent playing Diablo II: Resurrected, I just longed to return to Diablo III.

FIFA 22 Review – Tiki-taka

FIFA 22 opens on a close-up shot of a steaming-hot cup of coffee, before panning out to reveal that it’s David Beckham stirring the teaspoon. The former Galactico is enjoying some breakfast pancakes on a Parisian balcony, while a few doors down your avatar is being woken up by a friend telling them that they’re late. It’s a bizarre opening to a football game that also features Eric Cantona feeding pigeons, Thierry Henry and cover star Kylian Mbappe attempting to act on the Parc des Princes pitch, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from boxing star Anthony Joshua and F1 driver Lewis Hamilton. What’s the point of all this, you might be asking? Well, it’s all for an elaborate tutorial, of course. This lavish opening might have more style than substance, but it ushers in what feels like a new era for FIFA, as next-gen technology and a shift in tempo combine to significantly improve the on-pitch action.

During the opening tutorial, you’ll learn how to sprint and dribble by darting past coffee tables on the streets of Paris, then cover the basics of attacking and defending under the guidance of both Henry and Mbappe. Running through these fundamentals will be useful for series newcomers, but it’s an odd way to kick off the latest version of FIFA for everyone else. That’s mainly because it only shows off one new feature: the ability to switch to a specific defender by pressing in both thumbsticks. Player switching has been overly cumbersome in the past, so it’s nice to have a reliable way to take control of the best-placed player without having to scroll through each backtracking defender until the cursor lands on the right one. The only problem with this is it’s still not quite fast enough in the most hectic moments and ends up feeling redundant as a result. The rest of the tutorial, meanwhile, consists of features that were introduced in last year’s game, like being able to influence AI runs by telling your teammates which direction to head in.

FIFA 22 doesn’t introduce any mechanical additions such as this, but that doesn’t mean it rests on its laurels and fails to move the series forward. Instead, it’s the inclusion of innovative new technology, and a more considered pace, that iterates and improves on the series’ core gameplay. HyperMotion is the fancy marketing term for this new technology, but it’s more than just simple jargon. By using Xsens MoCap suits, HyperMotion allows the developers to use motion capture on all 22 footballers in a real-life match. Previously, EA would utilize motion capture to record specific movements, whether it’s a player striking a ball or lunging in for a tackle. By capturing a full 11v11 match, all of that authentic movement is implemented and immediately palpable in FIFA 22, both at an individual and team level.

With every minute detail being captured–including context-specific actions you maybe wouldn’t think of in a traditional motion capture session–FIFA 22 adds a plethora of new animations that impact every phase of a 90-minute match. You’ll see players take additional touches when controlling the ball to create an extra yard of space or to pluck a high pass out of the sky, before positioning their body to ping a diagonal ball to the opposite wing. Forwards will reduce their stride and take smaller steps before hitting a shot on goal, and opponents will outmaneuver each other in an attempt to dominate their aerial duel. All of this not only makes each moment and interaction look as believable as the games we watch on TV and in stadiums every week, but it also ensures that FIFA 22 feels more fluid by having each animation naturally flow into the next without any noticeable seams in between.

As a result, FIFA 22 is a noticeably slower game than its predecessor. It’s not quite as responsive, but it doesn’t need to be because you’re not zipping the ball around at 100 miles per hour. Matches in FIFA 21 often resembled the back-and-forth nature of basketball games, with the ball rapidly moving from one penalty box to the other. There isn’t a lack of goals in this year’s game; they’re just created through slick passing moves rather than by exploiting the fastest players on the pitch.

Pace is still a valuable asset, yet it’s not the be-all and end-all of your attacking threat. FIFA is a better and more balanced game when speed doesn’t dominate the meta as it has in years past. Harry Kane might be one of the best strikers in the world–with his 90 rating reflecting that–but finding anyone who actually used him on Ultimate Team in FIFA 21 is a challenge. That shouldn’t be the case in FIFA 22, as slower strikers are now viable options to lead your frontline. Robert Lewandowski might not be as fast as someone like Anthony Martial, but he makes smarter runs, gets into better positions, and is a lethal finisher. Martial is still a decent player to have, but his pace doesn’t trump everything Lewandowski brings to the table, even if the latter is slower off the mark.

It’s more accurate to real-life football and more satisfying as a result. You’re rewarded for being patient and methodical in your build-up play, but crosses are now a useful tactic if you have a striker who’s strong in the air and adept at peeling off their marker. You’re not outmatched in defense either, though. HyperMotion also has a tangible effect on team shape, with players able to move as one cohesive unit. The backline will maintain its shape while holding midfielders keep their position in front of the defensive unit, making you tougher to break down if you opt to play this way. With new, more varied tackling animations–plus the fact you’re more likely to come away with the ball after a successful tackle–defending can be just as enjoyable as attacking. Goalkeepers aren’t a liability behind you either, which helps. They’re not infallible, but they pull off a more expansive array of saves and aren’t so easily beaten by shots across the face of goal. Finesse shots from outside the box do give them issues, however, and could do with a tweak so they’re not quite as effective.

In terms of game modes, FIFA 22 has taken a page out of PES’ book and added a couple of sentences of its own. You’re now able to create your own team in Career mode, from customizing the kits and stadium to deciding whether your team of randomly generated players is more youthful or experienced. You can replace an existing team in any division and choose your overall star rating before tweaking the board’s expectations to your liking. It’s a neat idea that feels long overdue, considering how long Master League’s been around; it’s just difficult to enjoy using a squad of nobodies compared to taking over a real club with household names.

Volta Football, meanwhile, is getting closer to resembling the original FIFA Street, moving further away from realism. Each player now has one of three supernatural abilities they can unleash during a match to tap into the mode’s arcade sensibilities. Power Strike makes your shots super-powered; Pure Pace gives you a boost of turbo speed, and Aggressive Tackle lets you plow through opponents to win the ball back with relative ease. It’s not quite as over-the-top as FIFA Street, but it’s edging closer. There’s no story this time either, so you’re left to either play games against the AI to earn XP and unlock customization options, or play with other people in Volta Squads. The latter is better with friends unless you enjoy playing with a bunch of strangers who refuse to pass the ball to anyone ever.

Volta’s best new addition is only available on the weekends, for some confounding reason. Volta Arcade introduces a variety of party mini-games that revolve around a particular skill. Lava Disco, for instance, tasks you with capturing white tiles on a dancefloor by dribbling through them, while Wall Ball Elimination gives you a time limit to kick the ball against a giant wall when it’s your turn. Fail to do so and you’re eliminated, which means everyone else is frantically trying to stop you. There’s also Dodgeball, Foot Tennis, and plenty more of these frantic party games. It’s just baffling that you can only play them during the weekend.

Pro Clubs has also received some notable new additions after years of neglect. None of it is groundbreaking, but a slightly altered progression system that includes perks and player archetypes makes it easier to build a player that’s unique to you, and you can finally play as a woman this year, too. The other changes are cosmetic, letting you customize your team’s home stadium with Tifos, goal songs, crowd chants, and more.

Ultimate Team will still be the major timesink for most players, though, and in FIFA 22 EA has made a few incremental changes to its successful formula. The framework for Division Rivals has been altered to make it more accessible for players of all skill levels. The rewards you receive aren’t quite as good as previous years, which could drive players to the game’s microtransactions, but a forgiving checkpoint system ensures that you can’t lose progress after reaching a reward tier. However, it is deflating that you don’t earn instant rewards for gaining promotion.

Playing FUT Champions is still the best way to earn the biggest rewards and has been tweaked this year, too. After qualifying for FUT Champions via Division Rivals, you’re placed into a new playoff stage that you can play any time throughout the week. Rather than having to rack up wins, you earn four points for each win and one point for each loss. Eight points are enough to reach the first reward tier but you need 24 points from nine matches in order to qualify for the finals. Once you’ve done that, it reverts back to the old weekend league format, except it still uses the same points system as the playoffs, and there’s only a 20-match limit compared to the previous 30. This makes FUT Champions easier to digest and alleviates a lot of the stress, since you’re still making progress even if you lose.

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Pay-to-win microtransactions are still front and center throughout Ultimate Team, despite mounting pressure from regulators, and it’s difficult to ignore. FIFA 22 doles out a lot of rewards without forcing you to spend a penny, but you’re unlikely to see a lot of the players–especially the Icons–without filling up EA’s pockets. Limited-time preview packs let you check what’s inside a pack before buying, but this only applies to a single pack that refreshes once every 24 hours. This year, in particular, it feels like the developers are trying to make Ultimate Team fairer and less exploitative, but microtransactions aren’t going away any time soon unless forced to by law.

FIFA 22 is a fantastic football game once you step out onto the pitch, with a realistic and methodical style that rewards passing and vision over the exploitation of cheap pace merchants. EA has a habit of changing things for the worse with each new update, so hopefully, these strong foundations can remain intact throughout its life cycle. Off the pitch, there isn’t anything quite as impactful, but minor changes and new additions make game modes like Volta and Career more fun to play, and Ultimate Team is a more accessible experience that’s nonetheless still burdened by its microtransactions. There are few better feelings in sports games than being able to string together an aesthetically pleasing passing move that ends with the ball in the back of the net, though, and for that reason FIFA 22 is a worthwhile upgrade.

Aragami 2 Review – Shadow Dancer

Interpreting stealth as a power fantasy, Aragami 2 deploys the shadows as a literal weapon, not merely as somewhere to hide. One ability discharges tendrils of black mist from your fingertips to grab a nearby enemy and fling them headfirst into your fist, knocking them unconscious. Such powerful abilities emphasize a proactive approach to stealth that’s less about waiting for a window of opportunity to open and more about knocking a hole in the wall. With a lean, stylish aesthetic complementing minimalist mission design, Aragami 2 succeeds in making you feel like a daring and deadly shadow warrior, even if it eventually falls victim to repetition and a lack of variety.

Afflicted by a mysterious force that corrodes the body and devours the mind (most people would call this “getting old”), the aragami are gifted with shadow essence which grants them supernatural abilities. They call it a curse, but to be honest it’s hard to see the downside. The most basic of these abilities lets them briefly assume a shadow form and dash unseen across open ground, grapple up onto the roof of a building, or down to the cliff ledge below. Combined with a double-jump, the ability enables you to fling yourself around a level with abandon, traveling swiftly to bypass enemies, move in for the kill, or make a speedy getaway.

Movement in this mode is limited by a stamina meter, but it’s a generous one, allowing you to string together several jumps and dashes before requiring a moment’s pause to regenerate. Traversal through an area tends to be a matter of grappling to high ground, quickly surveying the surroundings, then executing clean and decisive strikes, whether you’re nimbly darting through gaps in enemy patrol routes or eliminating them one by one. There’s nothing stopping you from spending half an hour hanging off the roof of a pagoda or squatting in some waist-high reeds before making your move, if that’s what you want to do. It’s more that the tools at your disposal, and the ease and speed with which you can utilize them, better encourage the fast, fluid approach.

A highlight for me was a level where I decided, for narrative reasons I won’t spoil, that every single person in this village had to die, and that I wanted every single person to know that I was hunting them down–so I made a mess. I would grapple onto a roof then leap off and plant my katana in an enemy to cushion my fall, leaving their bloodied corpse for all to see while I darted down an alley and sliced open a second enemy, before grappling onto a roof to break line-of-sight with a pursuer. I’d quickly circle around behind him then leap down and slaughter him there in the middle of the street. It was chaos, with alerted enemies frantically trying to pinpoint my location amidst all the bodies and blood, but thanks to the range of movement options that let me recover from being spotted, it was controlled chaos. This is stealth where you always feel like the hunter rather than the hunted.

The aragami are not only endowed with a range of supernatural abilities, they also receive a second chance at life. Die, and they are immediately resurrected, with their health fully replenished and all experience intact. This sets you back to the start of a level, but all your progress remains–even alerted enemies will still be trying to track you down. There’s no third chance, though; die a second time and the mission is failed and you’ll have to repeat the whole thing over, collectibles and all. There’s no mid-mission save either, so the standard crutch of stealth gaming–quick-saving after every encounter and reloading if it all hits the fan–is taken away. That these restrictions don’t chafe is testament to how powerful Aragami 2 makes you feel, in the tools it equips you with to not only deal with any situation but escape from any crisis.

Being low on health during your second life and knowing that one slip means a mission restart, nicely tightens the tension as you near the mission objective. It almost adds an element of dynamic difficulty in how it forces a single-minded focus on the task at hand and a gear-change from the more liberated, laissez-faire approach encouraged by the movement options. To be clear, it’s never a particularly challenging game–you’re too powerful for that–but I did die and restart a mission a few times, including one memorable occasion where I had to survive the last third of a level with a health bar so slim I couldn’t even discern a hint of red. My heart was in my mouth over this final stretch, and it was incredibly satisfying to eventually make it by the skin of my teeth.

It’s impressive that the suite of stealth abilities allowed me to overcome such a setback–trust me, it wasn’t because I’m any kind of gaming savant. Yet the fact I was able to do it, and that this was the one and only time it really challenged me to perform such a feat, clarified to me that Aragami 2 plays it too safe. For one, there are too few enemy types, and the handful that are present for the most part don’t require you to alter your tactics in any meaningful way to deal with them. There are varying types of regular soldiers, some of whom are tougher than others, but all behave in the same way. The exceptions are the soldiers with conical hats who don’t patrol and can’t be lured away from their posts by any of your bag of tricks, and the monks who lob fireballs in your general direction if you open up that bag of tricks, but both of these can be knocked out or killed as easily as any other. They also don’t really combine in interesting ways that might necessitate a different plan of action. Occasionally a few enemies will overlap with their patrol routes, thus forcing you to consider them as part of a group and be strategic about the order in which you handle them. Too often, however, they operate in isolation and you can take them out or ghost past them one at a time.

Later levels introduce a couple of enemies that seem to offer more. The most successful of these is one with a psychic link to several nearby enemies; he’ll know if you kill any enemy he’s linked with and send reinforcements to investigate. The idea is that you now have to target a specific enemy first, one that’s by design located in the middle of a bunch of other nearby enemies. That’s a cool idea. But it’s undermined by how the reinforcements aren’t terribly diligent in searching for you, the fact you can simply knock out the linked enemies and the psychic won’t notice, and that the psychic only appears in a bare handful of levels right at the end of the game. Another missed opportunity is a “Predator” enemy who perches on ledges and sports a hard-to-see shadow camouflage. They’re tricky to discern because of their appearance, and don’t add much to the experience as a whole since they’re only encountered in a mere two levels. And in any case, they’re no trickier to deal with than any regular enemy.

The other major way Aragami 2 plays it safe is in a mission structure that has you revisiting the same locations numerous times. Each area hosts multiple missions over the course of the game, serving up new objectives and enemy placements in the same environment. Sometimes you’ll enter from a different point, and sometimes certain sections will be closed off and other sections now open, meaning you’re never re-running the exact same level on a new mission. But it does mean fewer surprises than if you were exploring new terrain on every outing.

Predictability is a two-edged sword. Over the course of multiple missions in the same place, you learn the best routes and the little shortcuts and gradually familiarize yourself with a sense of place. But at the same time, a certain weariness creeps in until eventually there’s an over-familiarity. Looks like this mission is taking back to the old mines yet again. Sigh. The new mission objectives freshen things up a little–this time you’re killing three targets, next time you’re destroying seven weapons caches, for example–but you’re still looking in the same places.

Over the course of multiple missions in the same place, you learn the best routes and the little shortcuts and gradually familiarize yourself with a sense of place. But at the same time, a certain weariness creeps in until eventually there’s an over-familiarity

It doesn’t help that each mission is also designed to be replayed, with slightly remixed enemies to allow you to grind and track down all the hidden collectibles. I made the mistake of replaying all the early missions as I went, thinking I’d need the extra XP and gold, but I later realized it was unnecessary. The main missions supply more than enough XP to purchase the new abilities and upgrades you want, and gold is abundant even if you do end up buying all the cosmetic items. Maybe it sounds great that there are slightly remixed missions to keep coming back to, but I found them to be a pretty pointless detour that bogged down my progress and accelerated the staleness of a repeated area.

Threading the missions together is a light narrative that offers just enough detail to propel events forward, but is never the focus. In between missions, you’ll return to your home village to speak to the few significant characters who keep the plot ticking over. Such exchanges are brief and do little to emotionally invest you in the world. It’d be nice to have a compelling reason to take on a mission, but the stealth-action is impressive enough to stand on its own.

Aragami 2 is a bold and aggressive take on the stealth genre, when it finds the confidence to step out of the shadows. Occasionally, however, it’s a little too timid and reverts to playing it safe, cowering in the corner rather than seizing the initiative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sable Review – Sandy Pilgrimage

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

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

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Now Playing: Sable Presentation | Tribeca Games Spotlight 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Judgment Review — Back To School

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

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

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Now Playing: First 16 Minutes of Lost Judgment PS5 Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toem Review: Look At This Photograph

September 15, 2021   Addict Gamer   No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Artful Escape Review – Nowhere Nephew

September 14, 2021   Addict Gamer   No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost in Random Review – Six Appeal

September 14, 2021   Addict Gamer   No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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