Rime Review

Rime feels a bit like someone telling you the only way you can see the Mona Lisa is by first having to unlock a heavy safe--the painting is beautiful, but my god, why did you make seeing it so bloody difficult? Although Rime looks and sounds gorgeous, its visual splendor is locked behind frustrating, shallow puzzles and an incomprehensible story, meaning you spend more time figuring out where to go than taking in the world around you.

Much like Journey or Ico, Rime features no text and only a basic, unfamiliar language--your blank-slate child character communicates through nondescript calls and facial expressions. Similarly, you're given no hints, there's no HUD, and in-game cues are portrayed through abstract audiovisual signals such as cave paintings and animal cries. When the game opens with your character waking up on an unfamiliar island, the absence of these typical gameplay themes lends Rime's environment a sense of mystery. You'll ponder where you are, how you got there, what you're supposed to be doing--and you'll want to explore the island to discover the answers.

This is Rime at its best: the first of its four worlds is a mini sandbox of places I wanted to go, animals I wanted to pet, and objects I wanted to touch. The wind in the trees and distant sound of wildlife, in addition to a slow, classical soundtrack and no enemies or time pressure makes it a pleasant, relaxing experience akin to taking a walk around a summer park. One beautiful sequence sees you illuminating a cave's darkened floor beneath you using your singing voice--at times, Rime is magical.

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Before long you'll stumble across the game's first puzzles, which mostly involve shouting to release bursts of energy that activate platforms and doors. These puzzles are expanded upon later in the game as light manipulation and pressure plates are added into the mix. But while more mechanics are added, the puzzles remain simplistic to the point of being shallow. The majority involve figuring out the one action required to unlock whichever door is needed to progress. Maybe you missed a key item off the beaten track. Maybe it's a matter of trial and error. Or maybe you're overthinking it, and there's a much simpler solution that you just haven't seen. One example tasks you with manipulating a large stone pillar to cast light-sensitive switches in shadow to open a cave door. Once I'd triggered a mid-puzzle cutscene featuring a giant enemy bird, I spent a further 15 minutes fiddling with the pillar, only to realise I'd not seen a small ledge I could use to climb out of the cave. These tiny, often obfuscated solutions make the process of figuring out the puzzles frustrating--and the one-step victory hollow.

Rime's poor signposting carries through to its exploration segments, which often left me clueless as to where to head next. In comparison to Journey, which orientates the player superbly using a consistent goal--the shining mountain--Rime has no such targets. This is exacerbated by the repetitive world design. Each level has its own theme--the first is a sunny island, the second a sandy desert, the third an abandoned city, and the fourth a rainy abyss. But within each world, there is little architectural diversity and the game does little to explore each theme in interesting ways. Additionally, the lack of distinct, recognizable landmarks to draw the eye means it's very easy to get lost. I was constantly ambling forward, not really knowing where I was going or why.

And this is reflected in the emotional journey Rime has you follow. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, but the abstract nature of both the world and its lack of language meant it was never clear what my driving force was--I was playing for progress's sake, rather than because I was desperate to turn the next page of a story I was engaged in. Two threads Rime does lay down--a hooded figure dressed in red and a strange, magical fox--are never properly resolved, and the ending is as confusing as it is pretentious. The twist introduced at the story's close also comes far too late to inject the emotional weight the game sorely needed up until that point--there's no real struggle, little bonding time with other characters, no huge sense of loss, and few moments of elation, making this emotional rollercoaster more of a monotonous merry-go-round.

Rime's artistry is unquestionable. Each world is enchanting in its own way, from the naturalistic peace of the first to the abstract doom of the last. Its soundtrack is similarly beautiful, capable of evoking wonder, tension, and fear in equal measure. But when compared to its influences like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey, it doesn't hold up too well. Consistent navigation problems, some frustrating puzzles, fiddly platforming, and severe frame rate dips make Rime feel like a well-dressed tribute act.

Rime Review

Rime feels a bit like someone telling you the only way you can see the Mona Lisa is by first having to unlock a heavy safe--the painting is beautiful, but my god, why did you make seeing it so bloody difficult? Although Rime looks and sounds gorgeous, its visual splendor is locked behind frustrating, shallow puzzles and an incomprehensible story, meaning you spend more time figuring out where to go than taking in the world around you.

Much like Journey or Ico, Rime features no text and only a basic, unfamiliar language--your blank-slate child character communicates through nondescript calls and facial expressions. Similarly, you're given no hints, there's no HUD, and in-game cues are portrayed through abstract audiovisual signals such as cave paintings and animal cries. When the game opens with your character waking up on an unfamiliar island, the absence of these typical gameplay themes lends Rime's environment a sense of mystery. You'll ponder where you are, how you got there, what you're supposed to be doing--and you'll want to explore the island to discover the answers.

This is Rime at its best: the first of its four worlds is a mini sandbox of places I wanted to go, animals I wanted to pet, and objects I wanted to touch. The wind in the trees and distant sound of wildlife, in addition to a slow, classical soundtrack and no enemies or time pressure makes it a pleasant, relaxing experience akin to taking a walk around a summer park. One beautiful sequence sees you illuminating a cave's darkened floor beneath you using your singing voice--at times, Rime is magical.

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Before long you'll stumble across the game's first puzzles, which mostly involve shouting to release bursts of energy that activate platforms and doors. These puzzles are expanded upon later in the game as light manipulation and pressure plates are added into the mix. But while more mechanics are added, the puzzles remain simplistic to the point of being shallow. The majority involve figuring out the one action required to unlock whichever door is needed to progress. Maybe you missed a key item off the beaten track. Maybe it's a matter of trial and error. Or maybe you're overthinking it, and there's a much simpler solution that you just haven't seen. One example tasks you with manipulating a large stone pillar to cast light-sensitive switches in shadow to open a cave door. Once I'd triggered a mid-puzzle cutscene featuring a giant enemy bird, I spent a further 15 minutes fiddling with the pillar, only to realise I'd not seen a small ledge I could use to climb out of the cave. These tiny, often obfuscated solutions make the process of figuring out the puzzles frustrating--and the one-step victory hollow.

Rime's poor signposting carries through to its exploration segments, which often left me clueless as to where to head next. In comparison to Journey, which orientates the player superbly using a consistent goal--the shining mountain--Rime has no such targets. This is exacerbated by the repetitive world design. Each level has its own theme--the first is a sunny island, the second a sandy desert, the third an abandoned city, and the fourth a rainy abyss. But within each world, there is little architectural diversity and the game does little to explore each theme in interesting ways. Additionally, the lack of distinct, recognizable landmarks to draw the eye means it's very easy to get lost. I was constantly ambling forward, not really knowing where I was going or why.

And this is reflected in the emotional journey Rime has you follow. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, but the abstract nature of both the world and its lack of language meant it was never clear what my driving force was--I was playing for progress's sake, rather than because I was desperate to turn the next page of a story I was engaged in. Two threads Rime does lay down--a hooded figure dressed in red and a strange, magical fox--are never properly resolved, and the ending is as confusing as it is pretentious. The twist introduced at the story's close also comes far too late to inject the emotional weight the game sorely needed up until that point--there's no real struggle, little bonding time with other characters, no huge sense of loss, and few moments of elation, making this emotional rollercoaster more of a monotonous merry-go-round.

Rime's artistry is unquestionable. Each world is enchanting in its own way, from the naturalistic peace of the first to the abstract doom of the last. Its soundtrack is similarly beautiful, capable of evoking wonder, tension, and fear in equal measure. But when compared to its influences like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey, it doesn't hold up too well. Consistent navigation problems, some frustrating puzzles, fiddly platforming, and severe frame rate dips make Rime feel like a well-dressed tribute act.

Endless Space 2 Review

Although you won’t find the word "wonder" in the traditional description for 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) space simulations, it’s the key element when capturing the imagination of players building galactic empires. Endless Space 2 gets that. Developer Amplitude’s follow-up to the dry-but-challenging Endless Space builds a brilliant space opera that never loses sight of fueling your imagination. A focus on storytelling that includes loads of interesting quests as well as some of the most beautiful graphics and sound in the genre make this a game that inspires awe as you colonize and conquer the space lanes.

All that said, Endless Space 2 diligently follows the 4X template and doesn’t offer much in the way of major surprises. The setting is the same as its predecessor--a galaxy once controlled by the godlike Endless, who have left traces of their vanished civilization in every nook and cranny of the star systems you explore. When the game begins at some point in the far future, civilizations of the time follow in the paths of the Endless, growing from one system to another in an attempt to create the biggest and best galactic empire turn by turn and achieve victory conditions based on science, economy, pure domination, and so forth. The focus is, of course, on the four Xs. You explore the unknown via vessel and probe, expand to new systems by creating outposts that grow into colonies, exploit the resources that you find on various planets and in space itself, and you exterminate enemies when they get in your way.

There's tremendous depth to explore in all four areas, making you feel like you’re leading a real empire. The game offers eight playable civilizations, each with its own set of traits and specialties and a specific storyline that makes for eight distinct campaigns. You can go with the fairly standard human United Empire or choose something much more offbeat--and there’s a lot of that to select from here. You’ve got the four families of the Lumeris, a froglike take on the Roman Empire crossed with the Mafia, who buy colonies. Then there’s the Vodyani, religious fanatics who spread through the stars in space arks and act like techno vampires. The Cravers are insects created by the Endless and then abandoned to go from system to system, devouring and using up every world that they conquer. Unfallen are space treants who have recently woken up to the greater universe and are now sending out colonizing vessels and extending their viny tendrils across space. And then you have the science-jester Sophons, the wholly alien Riftborn from another dimension, and the cloned Horatio narcissists.

Coming to grips with the ins and outs of each faction would take dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in total. Each race has very different specialties that you have to play up if you want to be successful, which results in quite the learning curve when going from one to another in the solo campaigns. While some core concepts translate well across each faction, only the United Empire and maybe the Sophons can be jacks-of-all-trades that lend themselves to varied approaches ranging from being a militaristic nutjob to a pacifistic science lover. The more alien species have to be played as what they are if you want to win. So forget about running a Craver game by being all about the science or playing the Vodyani as nice guys who might not want to absorb the citizens of every other world that they stumble across.

Still, running an empire is about a lot more than simple, species-based talents. You’re never locked into a single approach, and politics are a major factor. Six different parties--the Industrialists, Militarists, Ecologists, Pacifists, Scientists, and Religious--jockey for position in regularly held elections for seats in a proportional-representation senate. This makes for a tricky balancing act on different colonies, since happiness ebbs and flows depending upon how citizens feel their political priorities are being represented in the senate. So if the Scientists are big across the Sophon Empire but the Pacifists are tops in the Niss system colonies, you’ll have problems with happiness. Similar issues can happen when you absorb lesser species. Take on a race that’s militaristic when your main species are a bunch of eco-loving hippies, and you’ll have to deal with demands that might lead your civilization into some choppy waters. Who’s in power also governs what laws can be passed--and sometimes things collapse and government types change from democracy to dictatorship and back again.

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The economy is widely diversified, based on the FIDSI system. That acronym refers to the five main resources--food, industry, dust (an ancient substance that serves as the in-game currency), science, and influence (new to Endless Space 2)--that form the basis for everything you do. That sounds complex, and it kind of is when you get into more intricate aspects of the game, such as trade routes and the marketplace for goods. But Amplitude has broken the elements out so that it’s pretty easy to grasp how to develop each one and get a functioning--and at least relatively prosperous--society up and running in short order. This makes the game as accessible as a 4X space sim can really be, especially with the help of the in-game tutorials that take the form of an advisor giving out tips all the way through initial playthroughs.

Everything essentially revolves around colonies. These planetary expansions of your empire are essentially factories for the production of resources (along with special and luxury resources that can be used to improve colonies in various ways and even provide for tweaks that can help expand specific populations). Every new facility added to a colony brings boosts to one or more of the resources (planets are rated in what they bring to the table, too), and this is spelled out very clearly in the descriptions of these amenities. So if you add Sustainable Farms on Altair, you get +10 to food overall, an additional +5 to food for hot and cold climates, a boost to the Ecologist political party. Go for Big Data Shipyards, and all vessels built in the system receive a +40 XP bonus, and the Militarists get a shot in the arm. It’s all easy to follow, especially for anyone with even a bit of 4X experience.

While the above underlies everything that you do in Endless Space 2, the real heart of the game revolves around exploration and telling the story of your growing galactic empire--and both are handled extremely well.

An extremely comprehensive technology wheel completes the picture. This four-spoke contraption features Military, Empire Development, Science and Exploration, and Economy and Trade sections, which, of course, divide each range of techs into these broad specialties. A spectacular amount of depth is offered here, as you can use techs to tailor-make a civilization for both personal preference and to meet the situations faced in any given campaign. That said, techs take longer to research as you move through each specialty’s five tiers--which means that you can’t learn everything and have to be careful in your selections. It’s all too easy to look at the techs and realize that something you desperately need is 30 or 40 turns away...and the rampaging Craven or Vodanyi on your doorstep just aren’t going to wait around for you to catch up.

And that’s the challenge. There’s a lot of tech to digest, and many of them aren’t intuitive. Most come with multiple bonuses that aren’t always easy to understand. Baryonic Shielding, for instance, is tough to figure out in the first place due to that confusing name (many techs have nomenclature impossible to understand at a glance), let alone knowing that it unlocks the ability to colonize Savannah-class worlds, use warp drive on ships, and equip advanced scanners. Key abilities are scattered all over the wheel. A search function helps, but sometimes you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. The best thing you can do when starting out is to take some time and carefully read over the entire tech wheel. Even then, some more advanced techs aren’t as fully explained as they could be, and you have to experiment to see how much of an impact that they actually have on your empire.

Of course, that’s all just the nuts and bolts. While the above underlies everything that you do in Endless Space 2, the real heart of the game revolves around exploration and telling the story of your growing galactic empire--and both are handled extremely well. Exploration gives you a Star Trek sense of boldly going where no one has gone before, as each ship and probe sent out has the possibility of uncovering a new planetary system, a new race, or some other secret that could swell your coffers or increase your scientific knowledge. Amplitude has really filled out the universe here, too--there’s a lot to discover. Planetary curiosities hide resource deposits, ancient technology, strange races, hidden pirate gangs, ancient Endless strongholds, and more. While there’s some repetition, in that you uncover a lot of unimaginative loot hauls of materials like Adamantian (the game’s take on the metal that makes up Wolverine’s claws, presumably renamed to dodge Disney’s lawyers) and meaningless-sounding tech doodads like basic plasmoid shielding, there remains something undeniably cool in exploring the ruins, odd signals, and other anomalies on strange new worlds.

Each faction-based campaign tells a wholly original story, too, and these plot points are moved forward by quests that give direction to your efforts. The United Empire deals with a mysterious attempt to dethrone the emperor, the Sophons wrangle with an emergent AI, the Unfallen wrestle with the differences between the Light (pacifist) and Fire (militarist) ideologies, and so forth. Every story focuses on the defining characteristics at the heart of each civilization. Some quests are tied to the main storylines, some events pop out of nowhere during explorations, and others arise from focused efforts like trying to annex the system of a minor civilization through a specific assignment. There is a fantastic range of challenges offered that run from solo exploration jobs to competitions and collaborations with other empires. Choices also arise all the time that force you to essentially prefer one faction or resource over another, which can have long-term consequences for your empire.

Outstanding depth and tactical challenge have been preserved, although not at the expense of strong storytelling.

Further atmosphere is provided by the game’s beautiful visuals. The menu screens themselves are attractive in their own right, with a lot of graphic elements like colored graphs livening up the text and stats, but the real glitz comes in the form of cutscenes showing the surfaces of planets as they’re first being colonized. Getting a glimpse of the surface of a dusty ash planet or a rainy monsoon world--complete with a native creature often in the foreground--imparts a landing-party vibe that further enhances the sense of discovery in your explorations. The sound includes the expected bleeps and bloops of the computer-styled interface, along with a not-so-expected musical score that blends the majesty of a cinematic space opera with weird electronic tunes straight out of old sci-fi movies from the mid-20th century. Some moments seem designed to evoke the soundtracks of genre classics, including Forbidden Planet and Silent Running.

Just a couple of drawbacks interfere with the empire-building offered here. The interface is generally well designed and intuitive, although there’s too much need to go through your civilization system by system. Granted, this is where most of your decisions are made, but it seems like there could be a better way to organize how you examine all of your colonies.

Combat remains a low point of the franchise. While there are plenty of options when it comes to customizing fleet tech and ship designs, space battles are routine affairs that are dull to watch (although they show off a neat naval style, with ships firing broadsides at one another). You pick a battle plan, and everything else is automated. Thankfully, you can sim right to the results. Ground battles are also depicted, although they’re even more boring to watch than their space equivalents and don’t come with the same attention to detail provided to the ships.

A few aspects of the design are more inscrutable than they should be. Much of this can be found in the tech wheel, as previously noted, although a couple of issues exist elsewhere. One area that seems particularly unfair on players is the harsh penalty for “overcolonization.” This can flat-out obliterate your empire in a couple of dozen turns if not addressed, and it’s not easy to address it--at least in a successful way that lets you start expanding again. A vicious cycle gets started when systems become unruly. Anarchy reigns, resource production plummets, bankruptcy forces cuts across the board, and the government falls--making it impossible to issue the laws needed to increase happiness. Some advanced techs help with happiness and the overcolonization penalty, but they aren’t cure-alls and often come too little, too late. The whole concept of overcolonizing is a tough one to understand, given how the game is about creating a (presumably) sprawling galactic empire. It would be a welcome option to be able to turn this rule off--or at least disable it in the Easy and Sandbox levels of difficulty.

Any way you look at it, Endless Space 2 is one impressive achievement even taking into account the above paragraph of what are fairly minor gripes given how much this game does extremely well. 4X space sims have long been known as the territory of the serious strategy gamer, but Amplitude has broken away from the pack here. Outstanding depth and tactical challenge have been preserved, although not at the expense of the strong storytelling needed to emphasize the sense of awe and wonder in galactic exploration that’s always been a huge part of the genre’s appeal. Amplitude has done a masterful job combining these two elements into a single game, where the quests and strategy and politics and economy are all tied into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Zombies Chronicles Review

Treyarch's Zombies is the one that started it all, and the beloved mode has evolved a lot over the years and with different Call of Duty developers. For Black Ops 3, Zombies Chronicles offers eight remastered maps from World at War through Black Ops 2 with improved graphics, audio, and Black Ops 3's Zombies features. It's a greatest hits collection with enough variety to bring in new and veteran Zombies players alike, and it makes it worth revisiting Zombies at its roots.

Chronicles has a strong foundation in its map selection--it includes smaller, more manageable maps like World at War's Nacht der Untoten alongside more complex, story-centric maps like Black Ops' Ascension. If you're new to Zombies, you can hone strategies on the simpler maps, and if you've been a fan of Treyarch's Zombies for a while, at least one of your favorites is here. There's also good variety in map structure and the strategies they each call for, from the more open Shi no Numa to the small, easily-overrun rooms of Verruckt.

These maps are now better than ever thanks to the fantastic technical improvements. Atmospheric enhancements, from eerie screeches to subtle lighting changes, supplement the more straightforward graphics upgrade, and they make the same gripping, stay-up-all-night zombies rounds you remember feel fresh and modern. The most noticeable change, especially in the heat of the moment, is the enhanced audio--the horrible death rattle of a gunned-down zombie and the unearthly howling of the Hellhounds are grating in the best way. The guttural snarls behind you feel more urgent, and that translates to greater tension even on maps you played to death the first time around.

Years-old strategies need a bit of tweaking thanks to the introduction of Black Ops 3's Zombies features, and which further help in keeping the classic maps from feeling stale. Gobblegum and its various perks, for example, are optional, but depending on what you get, you might play a map differently compared to the way you remember. The change-up works well for groups that have a mix of new and returning players, too, since it gives newcomers an opportunity to be a bit more involved in the plan instead of just following someone who's already routed the map.

The Black Ops 3 features also work for newer players on their own, particularly those who started with Treyarch's most recent game. If you don't have the nostalgia going into Chronicles, small things like Gobblegum help to modernize the older, less-involved maps without overshadowing what made them favorites to begin with.

Atmospheric enhancements make the same gripping, stay-up-all-night zombies rounds you remember feel fresh and modern.

Chronicles also includes Black Ops 3 weapons, but they make very little difference in how you strategize--they're really just there to keep the collection in line with Treyarch's latest. It is nice to pick up the Kuda early on if you spent any time at all with Black Ops 3's multiplayer and want something a bit more familiar until you can get to the Mystery Box, but you'll still end up crossing your fingers and hoping for the Ray Gun anyway. Of course, that Ray Gun is as satisfying to fire as ever--it's just disappointing that the weapon additions are mostly fluff.

Zombies Chronicles takes a good combination of maps and upgrades them with great attention to detail. Newer Zombies features keep the collection modern, but its greatest strength is in the lighting and audio upgrades, which make the Zombies experience that many fans obsessed over before feel creepier, more tense, and more exhilarating than ever.

Birthdays The Beginning Review

Birthdays the Beginning, at first glance, looks like an interesting oddity. "God games" where you oversee the progression of an entire world and everything within aren't terribly common these days--much less one with cute, stylized visuals and a funny title. But beneath the charming veneer of Birthdays the Beginning lies a very complex simulation that takes you from the foundation of planetary life all the way to the creation of human civilization. Unfortunately, the road from plankton to the apex of humanity is so rough that you might not make it all the way through.

The game begins with a (rather unnecessary) framing story where you stumble into a cave one day to discover a strange cube and a voice asking you to help create and build life on its surface. The game then proceeds to guide you, via a series of overly wordy tutorials that are somehow simultaneously too long and short on information, into jump-starting the process of birthing life and the cycle of evolution and extinction that comes to define the game.

Interaction with the world is done primarily through flying around a time-frozen grid, raising and lowering blocks of land to form valleys, mountains, and oceans. These simple acts have a tremendous effect: lowering land below sea level creates oceans and heats up the entire cube, while creating peaks and mountains makes the world an overall colder place. Limited-use items allow you to create freshwater rivers, bringing essential moisture to areas that would otherwise be parched.

These various factors--elevation, temperature, moisture, and water type--determine what sort of life will come into existence and flourish. Once you're done shaping the land, you can step away and set time in motion, watching as the world moves on and waiting to see how your guiding hand affected the life on your cube. Some species will thrive, some will die out--and sometimes, if things are just right, you'll witness the evolution of something that sets an entirely new epoch in motion for your little world. When a new species comes into being, you can go down to the planet again, seek it out, and "capture" it, preserving its detailed information in your in-game library.

The process of birth and death is interesting to watch, and seeing how creatures interact with each other in a complex web is an engaging process...for a while, anyway. Unfortunately, things start to go sour quickly after you get going. Since free play isn't available until you've completed story mode, you're stuck in a long campaign where the game forces you to evolve life on your little planet in very specific ways. This generally means bringing species into being, which then serve as a touchstone for other species down the line.

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Except sometimes, that doesn't really matter, such as when the game asks for a species that feeds on a creature that went extinct hours ago--meaning you now must spend far too much time figuring out how to bring them back into existence. At other times, it looks like you have every condition you need to cultivate a species that's required to progress, but despite fast-forwarding millions of years, they never begin to propagate in the cube due to some unknown factor the game fails to make clear.

The lack of information is perhaps the biggest frustration you'll encounter throughout the game. You're constantly left guessing as to why certain factors just aren't playing out the way you expect them to. For example, when you sit back and watch time pass and the lifeforms of your planet either propagate or die out, you can't get specific details as to why they're thriving or dying. This is particularly irritating when you need certain species' numbers at a particular level--are these creatures not reproducing or advancing because it's too hot? Too cold? Do they lack water? Food? Is there not enough habitat? All you can do is look at the library info, harbor a guess, mess around with some elevation, and cross your fingers for the next time you start the clock, because all the in-game help button does is parrot the objective of your next progress goal back to you.

It feels like there's a fantastic game somewhere in the heart of Birthdays the Beginning, ready to claw its way out of the primordial ooze of ideas to evolve into a wonderful god-game experience.

Interface issues compound the game's structural problems. Sometimes you'll decide to make drastic changes to your cube, such as flattening out mountain ranges or raising the sea, in order to hasten to birth of certain forms of life. You'll find yourself flying around an ever-expanding cube, raising and lowering the blocks you're hovering over with R1 and R2. While you can select multiple blocks to raise/lower at once with the D-pad, finicky analog controls can make selecting specific land areas feel imprecise.

Options that would help streamline drastic revamps, such as "make everything in this selected area the same height" and "start a river from here," are only available as limited-use items. The lack of an easy undo option means that it's shockingly easy to make mistakes, such as accidentally killing off that river source you just used. Topping it all off is an arbitrary HP system that determines how much land-shaping you can do in a particular period. Given the easy recovery of HP via recovery items and resting, its entire inclusion is an unnecessary annoyance.

It's a shame that the story mode is mandatory, because the game really starts to improve once you've unlocked free play mode. You're free to mess around with your cube however you want, observing with no pressure as life transforms, evolves, and mutates in response to the world you craft. This allows you to watch all of the game's cute visuals spring to life as new beings come into existence. The finer nuances of the game really come out when you don't have anything telling you how your world needs to work, and though a lot of the same frustrations with interface and lack of information remain, they're considerably less pronounced. A challenge mode is also available: Here the game gives you pre-made cubes and asks you to do things like evolve a certain species within a set time period. These challenges wind up being considerably more fulfilling and interesting than the main campaign.

It feels like there's a fantastic game somewhere in the heart of Birthdays the Beginning, ready to claw its way out of the primordial ooze of ideas to evolve into a wonderful god-game experience. But the conditions for it to thrive just aren't right: The interface is ill-conceived and cumbersome, the campaign's frustrations bring progress to screeching halts, and the frequent lack of information turns what should be a fun micromanagement experience into an exhausting guessing game.

Farpoint Review

The "what” of Farpoint isn't as vital as the "how.” Even among its virtual-reality-enabled peers, it's a fairly standard shooter about an unnamed space shuttle pilot who, along with two scientists, ends up stranded on an uncharted desert planet while investigating an anomaly near a wormhole orbiting Jupiter. When you wake up, you've got nothing but an assault rifle and your wits with which to face off against an ugly horde of arachnids. For much of the first half of the game, Farpoint is rudimentary, with linear--albeit pretty and atmospheric--desert corridors leading to open areas filled with enemies. Your weapons are shooter mainstays: an assault rifle and a shotgun, both with high-powered secondary rounds.

It's only after the first boss fight that it becomes clear Farpoint is a late bloomer. The lethargic first area acts as a proof-of-concept demo for the PSVR Aim controller--an optional accessory that can be purchased as a bundle with the game. To Farpoint's detriment, it means anyone playing the game with a DualShock 4--Farpoint doesn't support PlayStation Move controllers--will be bored to tears before being torn apart by the game's nimble, vicious little beasts.

For those who do splurge for the Aim, however, they'll find Farpoint's early hours show off all the slick ways the gun controller makes the difference between a boring game and an engaging one. Through the Aim, the otherwise lackluster desert corridors are a prime showcase for the kinetic motion and aiming that could only work in VR. One of the best tiny touches is the simulated holographic sight--modeled after real-world counterparts--that makes targeting encroaching enemies from a distance a more involved but satisfying process.

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Once you move past this tutorial-like section, Farpoint starts bringing its surprises out of the bag. The generic bug hunt in haunting, sunbathed landscapes gradually transitions into a pulse-pounding, run-and-gun nightmare scenario against a slew of unforgiving murder machines. The weapons take on a delightful alien bent, with a decidedly different heft and feel from the basic assault and shotgun options of the first half. With infinite ammo for all of them--only explosive rounds and rockets need refilling--you'll walk into any firefight comfortably.

When bipedal aliens join the fight in the second half of the game, Farpoint becomes a true test of skill, and comes alive in a way the first half never hints at. Enemies suddenly know how to use cover, flank your position, and fire sniper rifles from afar. Sneaky killshots have to be carefully keyholed through minute gaps in wreckage with one eye closed and actual steady hand on the Aim controller. Alternatively, John Wick-style strolls down a corridor while blind-firing a shotgun and laying waste to a whole squad of enemies without breaking stride feels magnificent. Style and success in Farpoint are bound only by your own flexibility and guile.

And yet, the biggest surprise the game has in store has nothing to do with the gunplay but the overarching plot involving the two scientists, Dr. Grant Moon and Dr. Eva Tyson, who crashed on the planet first. Time away from gunning down aliens is spent examining holographic records of the doctors' prior escapades. While this builds toward a somewhat predictable conclusion, the particulars are breathtaking in their poignancy; a tonal clash with the rest of the game. Eventually, every cutscene is a hard emotional swerve, and the ultimate fate of Drs. Moon and Tyson feels ripped from a much different, heartbreaking experience than an arcade VR shooter.

The narrative dissonance fades away in the game's final third and feels like a long-lost memory once the chaos of combat returns. And after the credits roll, you're left with nothing but a series of challenge modes, remixing the enemy layout of each stage with a time limit and a point value for every dead bot or bug. These challenges can also be tackled as an online co-op experience, which may not make things any easier--but in VR, how two players decide to play is a much different kind of song and dance than the average cooperative Horde mode found in other games.

Despite shifting gears in surprising ways and extending the life of its gunplay by remixing levels, Farpoint is more like a proof of concept than a game designed to push the envelope on its own terms. It'll give you a taste of something new for PSVR, and give you hints of what to look forward to if the Aim controller attracts wider support. It's going to be hard to go back to two Move controllers now that Sony's new toy has made a case for itself.

Mages of Mystralia Review

When it comes to the magic and charm of newly minted old-school adventure games, few are able to successfully convey the same style and wonder that the classics of the genre once evoked. In the case of Mages of Mystralia, a modest but energetic adventure, it wears its influences on its sleeve, all while charting its own path in its uniquely whimsical, vibrant world. Of course, whether it manages to succeed in reaching the same heights as games that have stood the test of time is another matter entirely, and this new adventure might have needed some extra time training before starting its grand journey.

In the land of Mystralia, our central protagonist Zia discovers that she possesses the talents to become a mage, long believed to come only from the rarest of bloodlines. After accidentally using her powers and leaving her village in turmoil, she exiles herself and travels to a sanctuary for mages to learn the spellcrafting arts. She's tasked with preventing the war between a massive army of trolls and the Kingdom of Mystralia from tearing apart the land--and all who reside within it--but as she learns more of her destiny as a mage, Zia discovers that something far more sinister might be sowing the seeds of conflict for their own ends.

As expected in a high-fantasy adventure, you'll explore an interconnected land full of monsters and dungeons while collecting resources and new items for your quest to stop the oncoming threat. The plot in Mages of Mystralia is largely in the forefront. Written by Ed Greenwood, creator of Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign, the author's pedigree is evident in the world's tantalizing lore depicting the strife of living a mage’s life, and the persecution they face for their gifts. But while Mages of Mystralia keeps its worldbuilding steady, it isn’t able to keep up with the pacing of it all throughout, resulting in an ending that leaves far too much on the table and with little payoff.

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With that said, the journey itself is definitely more satisfying than the destination. Befitting the game’s old-school charm, Mages has a colorful, whimsical atmosphere, and the presentation definitely shows a lot of care and creativity. As a mage, Zia is able to bend the elements to her whims, resulting in some exciting showmanship of her craft. When you start out, you'll have access to basic fireball, lightning, and wind spells. But over the course of your travels, you'll acquire special runes that act as modifiers for your basic spells. As you modify and alter various elemental properties, you'll end up creating spells such as a tri-lightning-bolt attack that leaves ice puddles in its wake, resulting in double damage from two different elements.

While many of the runes are clearly designed just for puzzle solving, you can actually take the spellcrafting surprisingly far. There’s an impressive amount of customization and versatility to your spell options, particularly in how you can alter trajectory, homing accuracy, and secondary buffs--which is a testament to just how deep the system is. Powering through several mobs of trolls with your own personal spell concoctions is incredibly satisfying, and it’s easily one of Mages of Mystralia's true strengths.

There's a sense that the game is constantly scratching the surface of something great--but ultimately leaves it unexplored in favor of the mundane.

Unfortunately, the complexities of spellcrafting also highlight the boilerplate nature of exploration and questing. Backtracking is a fairly large part of Mages of Mystralia--understandably, since new spells and runes can open fresh paths in past areas. But aside from dropping in stronger foes, the game doesn't do much to offer more challenges outside of the main quest. For the most part, dungeons and quests revolve around clearing out waves of monsters or solving puzzle rooms to progress, in between fetching items for townsfolk. That's not necessarily bad on its own--one amusing side quest involves helping a farmer find his pitchfork that his cousin “borrowed”--but it’s disappointing there aren't more opportunities to explore the landscape and learn more about the people that inhabit it.

There's a sense that the game is constantly scratching the surface of something great--but ultimately leaves it unexplored in favor of the mundane. Even story moments that should feel important simply fall flat on the follow-through and payoff. During one section, you'll meet a necromancer who forms an alliance with Zia during a fairly important moment in the story. Yet by the end, he's relegated to a one-off side quest and doesn't return in any way to the core plot, despite the other characters making a big deal about how necromancers can't be trusted. These rising expectations and subsequent letdowns happen more often than not, which is frustrating, considering how vibrant and interesting the designs and structure of the world are.

While you'll obviously go through the standard fire temples surrounded by molten lava and the requisite ice temples on steep mountain peaks, the colorful visual style has a quasi-storybook feel, which makes the broad color palette of the many forests and dungeons pop out and feel more defined. Most of the game is presented from a pulled-back isometric angle--that’s for the best, as many of the visuals look a bit rough up close, especially during some of the cutscenes. With that said, there’s this pleasing feeling that comes over you while exploring as the musical score ramps and sets every scene. The orchestral themes, emphasizing the sense of whimsy and wanderlust in Zia’s travels, are equally as charming and exciting as the visual style of the game.

Clocking in at a modest six hours after an average first playthrough, Mages of Mystralia still leaves much to be explored with the plethora of hidden chests, optional puzzles, and a special mage trial combat event to take part in. Though unfortunately it feels more so for the sake of clearing the way to a 100% completion rating, as opposed to needing these items for the quest. With that said, those first six hours of Mages of Mystralia stir up a lot of the same feelings as the old-school games that inspired it, offering a spirited and endearing romp with a charming mage and her impressively complex magical abilities.

The Surge Review

Curt and dismissive as it may sound, The Surge is a Dark Souls clone to the core, but it's also the best kind--one that uses From Software's tried-and-true foundation as a launch pad for new ideas. Not everything hits, but The Surge works far more often than it doesn't, and what it does change is mostly better executed here than in its forebears. Deck 13 has crafted a satisfying adventure that breathes new life into a flooded sub-genre.

The Surge's story is about as unnerving as they come. The world's fallen to pieces, in part because mega-corporations have failed as stewards of the earth. Not to worry, though, as they also offer the cure. You play as Warren, a paraplegic looking for work with CREO--a medical device company. In the opening moments, you register for implants that could cure you, but will require you to work for CREO using a snazzy new exoskeleton. It gives you boosted strength and speed, and of course helps you walk again, but as payment CREO more or less takes your soul. But it gets darker.

As soon as you start up the procedure, you're chemically paralyzed, but not anesthetized. As machines hack and drill into your flesh and bone, you feel every excruciating second--haunting screams bellow out of the speakers as you watch bots cut into Warren. Then, you're dumped out into the wasteland just outside the facility, discarded as a failure. Now, you fight to survive, because what else is there to do?

Surge doesn't really do much with its story that hasn't been tread a thousand times in everything from Soylent Green to Deus Ex; Big companies are bad and we probably shouldn't let them muck with our biology. What it does do well is pace the game out and establish a sinister tone. While Souls-based games tend towards more Lovecraftian themes, Surge goes all-in and blends the fear of technology run amok with body horror in some inventive ways. Plus, it's less about tackling massive beasts and ruling powers of the world and more just trying to survive one helluva bad day. Thematically, that puts it closer to Dead Space, and that lends itself to an even slower, more intentional pace than its inspirations.

By and large you'll be squaring off against other discarded folks like yourself, and their suits just don't work quite right. Arms will twitch, and they'll lumber and lunge all over--it's stark and eerie. Plus, that aesthetic foundation dovetails into excellent addendums to the core Souls formula. The game is hard, you lose your stuff when you die and you have to go get it back--none of that has changed--but combat has a very different pacing to it. Blocking is much rarer, and instead of slashing at foes when you have an opening, you now have to pick out weak points on their body.

No Caption Provided
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Most enemies will have some form of armor or protection, meaning that you'll first need to lock-on, and then hack away to create openings. A much greater emphasis has been placed on interrupting enemy attacks by targeting weak points. Slicing an unarmored leg will stagger enemies and interrupt their assault--the best defense here is a hawkish offense.

You're not nimble, and without a shield or too many other means of avoiding damage, you're encouraged not to just find openings to attack, but to create the specific openings you need. You might need to club someone's leg to bring them down, but if they move just so, it'll be hard to get close. The puzzle then becomes maneuvering so that you can strike effectively. This has the added bonus, of course, of making most encounters feel distinct. You'll see the same animations and movement patterns over and over again, but different weak points and different weapons add enough variety to keep Surge from feeling too repetitive.

Not all is well, though. While Surge definitely impresses with its creative melding of tone and play, it does lead to a lot of awkward controls. Souls games are convoluted enough, with a button for just about everything. But the need to target different body parts and weaknesses here, as well as the practical requirement of locking on, means that you'll occasionally die while trying to fiddle with the targeting reticle. Even with plenty of play-time, it's tough to get used to. And it doesn't stop there.

Jumping always has to be done from a run, and there's just enough platforming throughout to make this awkward process a nuisance. Imagine being on a ledge with no guard rails, and having to leap to a higher platform from a running start. Often enough you'll start running and fall right off. Warren has a momentum to him that keeps his controls always feeling a bit loose. That's fine for most, and in step with the rest of the subgenre--especially since it elevates the intentionality of action--but when that bit bumps up against some of Surge's other changes, it's clumsy to say the least.

But, there's a host of other features and additions that keep Surge exciting enough that it's worth it to push on in spite of those frustrations. For example, implants and other add-ons slot into your exo suit and add a host of new abilities and techniques. You use most of them by building up energy with a series of successive hits, before pulling off a flashy finisher. It's simple enough, but when mixed with the targeting system and general flow of combat keeps the game feeling brisk and aggressive--despite its clunky movement.

Surge is far from perfect, but none of its problems are deal breakers. They're minor bumps that come from an otherwise inventive, exciting new entry in a packed sub-genre. It bucks the trend towards creative bankruptcy, adopting some fresh ideas and layering those together with aesthetics, tone, and play to create an inspired adventure.

The Surge Review

Curt and dismissive as it may sound, The Surge is a Dark Souls clone to the core, but it's also the best kind--one that uses From Software's tried-and-true foundation as a launch pad for new ideas. Not everything hits, but The Surge works far more often than it doesn't, and what it does change is mostly better executed here than in its forebears. Deck 13 has crafted a satisfying adventure that breathes new life into a flooded sub-genre.

The Surge's story is about as unnerving as they come. The world's fallen to pieces, in part because mega-corporations have failed as stewards of the earth. Not to worry, though, as they also offer the cure. You play as Warren, a paraplegic looking for work with CREO--a medical device company. In the opening moments, you register for implants that could cure you, but will require you to work for CREO using a snazzy new exoskeleton. It gives you boosted strength and speed, and of course helps you walk again, but as payment CREO more or less takes your soul. But it gets darker.

As soon as you start up the procedure, you're chemically paralyzed, but not anesthetized. As machines hack and drill into your flesh and bone, you feel every excruciating second--haunting screams bellow out of the speakers as you watch bots cut into Warren. Then, you're dumped out into the wasteland just outside the facility, discarded as a failure. Now, you fight to survive, because what else is there to do?

Surge doesn't really do much with its story that hasn't been tread a thousand times in everything from Soylent Green to Deus Ex; Big companies are bad and we probably shouldn't let them muck with our biology. What it does do well is pace the game out and establish a sinister tone. While Souls-based games tend towards more Lovecraftian themes, Surge goes all-in and blends the fear of technology run amok with body horror in some inventive ways. Plus, it's less about tackling massive beasts and ruling powers of the world and more just trying to survive one helluva bad day. Thematically, that puts it closer to Dead Space, and that lends itself to an even slower, more intentional pace than its inspirations.

By and large you'll be squaring off against other discarded folks like yourself, and their suits just don't work quite right. Arms will twitch, and they'll lumber and lunge all over--it's stark and eerie. Plus, that aesthetic foundation dovetails into excellent addendums to the core Souls formula. The game is hard, you lose your stuff when you die and you have to go get it back--none of that has changed--but combat has a very different pacing to it. Blocking is much rarer, and instead of slashing at foes when you have an opening, you now have to pick out weak points on their body.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Most enemies will have some form of armor or protection, meaning that you'll first need to lock-on, and then hack away to create openings. A much greater emphasis has been placed on interrupting enemy attacks by targeting weak points. Slicing an unarmored leg will stagger enemies and interrupt their assault--the best defense here is a hawkish offense.

You're not nimble, and without a shield or too many other means of avoiding damage, you're encouraged not to just find openings to attack, but to create the specific openings you need. You might need to club someone's leg to bring them down, but if they move just so, it'll be hard to get close. The puzzle then becomes maneuvering so that you can strike effectively. This has the added bonus, of course, of making most encounters feel distinct. You'll see the same animations and movement patterns over and over again, but different weak points and different weapons add enough variety to keep Surge from feeling too repetitive.

Not all is well, though. While Surge definitely impresses with its creative melding of tone and play, it does lead to a lot of awkward controls. Souls games are convoluted enough, with a button for just about everything. But the need to target different body parts and weaknesses here, as well as the practical requirement of locking on, means that you'll occasionally die while trying to fiddle with the targeting reticle. Even with plenty of play-time, it's tough to get used to. And it doesn't stop there.

Jumping always has to be done from a run, and there's just enough platforming throughout to make this awkward process a nuisance. Imagine being on a ledge with no guard rails, and having to leap to a higher platform from a running start. Often enough you'll start running and fall right off. Warren has a momentum to him that keeps his controls always feeling a bit loose. That's fine for most, and in step with the rest of the subgenre--especially since it elevates the intentionality of action--but when that bit bumps up against some of Surge's other changes, it's clumsy to say the least.

But, there's a host of other features and additions that keep Surge exciting enough that it's worth it to push on in spite of those frustrations. For example, implants and other add-ons slot into your exo suit and add a host of new abilities and techniques. You use most of them by building up energy with a series of successive hits, before pulling off a flashy finisher. It's simple enough, but when mixed with the targeting system and general flow of combat keeps the game feeling brisk and aggressive--despite its clunky movement.

Surge is far from perfect, but none of its problems are deal breakers. They're minor bumps that come from an otherwise inventive, exciting new entry in a packed sub-genre. It bucks the trend towards creative bankruptcy, adopting some fresh ideas and layering those together with aesthetics, tone, and play to create an inspired adventure.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review

Fire Emblem is a series with a storied history and has transformed dramatically over its nearly 25-year existence. Fire Emblem Echoes, a remake of a very early game in the series--Fire Emblem Gaiden--remains a departure of sorts from what most veteran players might expect. Rather than emphasizing character relationships and story dialogue, Fire Emblem Echoes puts its focus on long- and short-term strategy and strength-building. The end result is a fresh take on Fire Emblem's strategy-RPG formula, and one that ranks among the best of the 3DS library.

Echoes follows the dual leads of Alm and Celica, a pair of youths that bear a strange crest upon their hands. They bond together as children in a tiny farming village, only to be torn apart by a sudden dramatic event. Many years after the fact, you're in control of both characters--and their respective armies--in search of a reunion amongst a conflict-ridden yarn spun of large-scale wars, hidden pasts, and shocking truths.

While the story is classic Fire Emblem fare, the emphasis here is centered firmly on the saga of Alm and Celica, with only a few brief interludes that shift focus to other army members. The characters you welcome into your ranks and interact with are a charming and likable bunch with fun, well-written dialogue. Almost all in-game character text is voiced as well, which adds appreciable personality. Players more accustomed to recent Fire Emblem games like Awakening and Fates, however, may feel a bit disappointed in the lack of side character interactions. You don't "pair off" characters in Echoes as you would in those games--while character-to-character support conversations do still exist here, they're much shorter and happen strictly during combat. While this may be a disappointment to some, overall, it helps cement the story focus on the two leads and the various warring factions of FE Echoes' world.

While most of Echoes takes place on grid-based, turn-driven battlefields, you'll also spend a lot of time navigating an overworld map with two armies: one led by Alm and the other by Celica, each with a different group of soldiers under their lead. Interactions between the two sets of troops are limited, meaning you'll have to manage resources, weaponry, and stat-building across two teams. The two take mostly separate paths in their respective campaigns, stopping at towns and dungeons to gather intel, find new recruits, take on side-quests, and discover hidden treasure. Explorable towns, castles, shrines, forts, and dungeons are unique to Echoes, and while interactions with most of areas are somewhat limited--basically restricted to examining environments with a cursor as you would in a point-and-click adventure game--dungeons offer a far more interesting twist for the series.

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Dungeons are explored on foot from a third-person perspective. You scout for secret passages and smash pots and crates for loot while avoiding (or seeking out) battles against roaming enemies. Touching a foe takes you to a traditional FE battle, but once you've felled your opponents, it's back to exploring. These areas serve as a great addition that offer variety beyond simply stringing a series of battles together while still keeping the narrative focus on the core story.

Echoes has some crucial differences from other Fire Emblem games that add interesting layers to army management and combat as well. Characters can only carry one item at a time, forcing you to carefully consider if a special weapon, a restorative item, or armaments like a shield or ring would be ideal. Weapon degradation isn't an issue (similar to Fates), and magic is learned through leveling rather than buying tomes--and uses character HP to cast, making high-powered spells a potentially risky proposition.

These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that's both distinct and refreshing.

Combat skills are learned by keeping specific items equipped in battle for long periods of time and are tied to individual pieces of gear, meaning you can't just learn a skill from a specific shield, then equip a sword and keep using the skill. Stamina wears down as characters fight and take damage, degrading their stats and combat capabilities unless they replenish them with food, medicine, or offerings to the goddess Mila. Finally, the rock-paper-scissors style weapon triangle of modern FE games is gone entirely--swords can now clash with spears on equal footing.

These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that's both distinct and refreshing. You can't simply go in with strategies you may have devised in other Fire Emblem titles and expect them to work here; you'll need to really stop and think about weapon distribution and upgrades, consider how to effectively use certain classes, when to take time with optional fights to build additional character levels, and so on.

The game's difficulty is high overall, which makes conquering the toughest battles relatively unscathed feel like a real accomplishment. While the difficulty level makes formulating a sound strategy highly rewarding, it can also lead to some cases where you might feel stuck unless you grind out a few more levels or backtrack to the shrine to change classes, especially if you're playing with permadeath on. But it always feels worth it; when you face a huge armada on a molten lava-covered battlefield, enduring assaults from constantly respawning foes while trying to keep your army's stamina and health above critical levels, and you somehow manage to pull off a victory with a lucky arrow planted in a wizard's cranium, pride and elation come in equal measure.

Helping you to secure those feelings is a brilliant new addition to gameplay called Mila's Turnwheel. Each battle grants you a limited number of uses of the Turnwheel, which effectively acts as a rewind button. Missed several attacks in a row? You can opt to spin back time to a few attacks earlier and attempt them all again, hopefully with better luck. Realize that your brilliant "divide and conquer” strategy is actually going to leave your best soldiers dead? Go back several turns and take a totally new approach--you can rewind time as much or as little as you'd like, provided you still have enough cogs in reserve for that battle. This wonderful system allows players to take back critical combat mistakes without having to reset a long and arduous battle and is a tremendous boon whether you are playing with or without permadeath enabled. Once you run out of cogs, though, you'll have to restart the level to take back mistakes, adding yet another nice layer of strategy--is it really worth a cog to reroll for a critical hit, or should you save it for when you plan your final assault on the tough-as-nails enemy commander? Only you can make the call.

Fire Emblem Echoes is a fantastic remake and a striking departure from modern Fire Emblem staples. What it lacks in interpersonal character relationships and user-controlled "shipping," it makes up for in meaty, challenging strategy gameplay, engaging exploration sequences, and a tighter overall narrative. Taken both on its own and as part of the larger Fire Emblem franchise, Echoes's unique elements help it stand out from its contemporaries. If you feel like you're up to a lengthy, engaging challenge, then Echoes will satisfy in spades.