Violett Review

In ways both fantastical and familiar, Violett weaves a yarn that snakes around you and pulls you in. This point-and-click adventure shoves its surreality and challenge to the forefront, announcing its intention to lure you into its twisted world and twist your brain into knots from the get-go. As the story grows, the game’s mechanics wane, touching on possibilities Violett never fully exploits. Yet where the lead character’s magical abilities never wholly blossom, the journey casts its own kind of spells on you. Push past the frustrating initial moments and prepare for a lovely and unusual tale.

The basic setup is one we’ve all heard before. A young, rebellious teen moves away from her school and her life in the city to an old haunted house in the middle of nowhere. It’s a bit hackneyed, but it works as a solid foundation for the game’s real draw: a mind-bending nightmare world filled with tough puzzles and inventive visuals.

Channeling some unholy fusion between all of the great surrealist artists as well as a healthy dose of Lewis Carroll, Violett opens with the eponymous teen looking around her room for something–anything–to do. She spots a glint through a hole in the baseboard and reaches in to find herself quickly transported to a visually stunning alternate world. The story is pretty bare-bones and is almost exclusively without words, instead relying on pictures, symbols, and facial expressions to communicate. Unfortunately, while that approach helps the already stellar visual presentation, Violett’s first few moments are marred by a dedication to that minimalism.

After her transportation to this alternate dimension, Violett finds herself trapped inside a cage, and you, as the player, have some small degree of control over her surroundings. At first, she can’t do much besides rock her cage back and forth, by means of you clicking and dragging the mouse to and fro. Unfortunately that requires some strange timing, and it took me about 10 minutes to get the hang of it. On the flip side, that awkward motion shows up only once more at the very end of the game. Coarse first impressions aside, this first scene is fantastic as a vertical slice of everything you need to learn to progress.

This pond is more representative of the late-game stages and lacks the strangeness of earlier stages, instead looking very grounded, albeit quite somber.

Once you’ve rattled your cage sufficiently, you briefly grab the hands of a fairy, also imprisoned, which grants you some basic telekinetic powers. From there, you can manipulate objects throughout the room, either by simply clicking on them or by clicking and dragging them in a specific direction to achieve a specific effect. If you’re trying to manipulate an object in the wrong way or at the wrong time, Violett shakes her head and mumbles disapprovingly.

Scattered around the room are a few colored orbs that you can collect by clicking on them. They are hidden, though, and very carefully disguised by the environment. These are orbs of elemental power, and they act as a constant sort of Easter-egg hunt. Often there are four or five on any given screen, but figuring out exactly where they sit is a running puzzle that helps guide you to look around the room for clues as to your next objective. With this knowledge in hand, you have all you need to move on.

Not everything in Violett’s world looks like it comes from the land of nightmares…sometimes there are colorful party balloons!

From there, things start to get really strange. The first room you come to after the introductory area features a demonic-looking teapot that never takes its one eye off of you. It’s distinctly unnerving, but works well to set the creepy, absurdist tone. This room also tests the lessons you learned in the first room to make sure that you’ve got the hang of them. From there, you find an M.C. Escher-inspired hub of sorts that leads off to several other places, and the game proper begins. This is also the toughest part of the game, since you have several rooms that you must tackle with relatively little to guide you. The strangeness of the world and the obtuse rules it follows highlight Violett’s nature as an outsider to this world. You don’t understand it, because she doesn’t, at least not yet. Regardless, this first hub and its connected rooms amount to the first few hours of gameplay, and they are stunningly hard. While some of that difficulty continues, after you start to get a decent grasp on the world, it isn’t quite as alien or as hostile.

There’s an overarching theme of escapism that steadily transitions to homesickness, much in the way that Alice’s trip through the rabbit hole first seems like a fun romp before becoming more and more hostile. Here, though, the first few environments are remarkably unfriendly, whereas the later ones are wistful and lonely. Because there are no words or real cutscenes to help communicate the game’s message, and there’s a strong implication that this is Violett’s escapist fantasy, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this trip through the rabbit hole is reflective of Violett’s own emotional state. Helping that interpretation along is the absolutely fantastic musical score. The music changes from room to room, helping to contextualize each major location in the game. Some rooms rely on pizzicato strings to imply that Violett is in danger; others shift into G minor chords to imply sadness and loneliness.

A few orb locations are obvious, but some aren’t so easy. There are quite a few in this shot alone. Can you find them all?

While the meat and potatoes of such simple games are the environments and the puzzles, Violett does have a few odd problems. First, while the colored orbs I mentioned earlier are useful in that they help encourage you to look around and closely examine the rooms, they don’t have much utility beyond that. Later, Violett gains some other powers in addition to her telekinesis. It’s sort of implied that the strength of those powers is related to how many orbs you’ve collected, but they don’t change at all over time. Even if they did, those other powers are rarely used. Violett’s ability to float, make plants grow, and finally encapsulate herself in a shield all seem like they’d be fantastically useful for navigating such a strange land, but they never come up in a story-critical context until the last few seconds of the game. Instead, they’re used only to help collect pages of a diary left by an unknown stranger. These pages aren’t critical, nor do they provide any hints to help the game along. They are entirely optional, though you often have to go to rather extreme lengths to collect them. I was left feeling that the game is unfinished, because these skills aren’t used for anything interesting or vital.

Despite the oddly incomplete utilization of otherworldly psychic powers, and an insane difficulty curve, the emotional context goes a long way to helping Violett along. The steep curve is representative of Violett’s own confusion, and the powers are her growing determination to escape this alternate world and return home. Violett is quiet and unassuming, but it steadily weaves a tale about childhood fears and desires with which we are all too familiar. Despite its surreal setting, it has a very personal touch that grounds it.

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood Review

Sometimes being pretty matters when you’re a video game, and Max: The Curse of Brotherhood demonstrates that point perfectly. It’s a typical platformer, competent but largely unremarkable. Basic running and jumping sequences are supplemented by interesting puzzles and an unsurprising slew of collectibles, but none of it ever comes together in a way that makes a truly favorable impression. Until, that is, you stop to admire the gorgeous visuals. Suddenly, everything disappointing starts to feel a little better, and the good moments are that much more uplifting.

The basic premise, as revealed in attractive cutscenes featuring voice work that thankfully manages to avoid ever feeling obnoxious, is as follows: you are Max, an irritable boy who comes home to his annoying younger brother, Felix. Annoyed by the lad’s rambunctious behavior, you read aloud the words of a spell designed to make such nuisances disappear. As in the film Labyrinth, those words take almost immediate effect. Your sibling disappears through a void, and you jump in after him as regret over your irresponsible actions takes hold. Just like that, you’ve embarked on a journey across a treacherous wilderness. Your destination is the wizard Mustachio’s castle, and your only weapon is a magic marker.

The story is no Excalibur, even if at several points you do pull items from various stones with Arthurian flair, and his inadequate means of self-defense makes the humble Max easy to root for as you help him navigate a world that seems to view him as either a snack or a pincushion. Cutscenes also prod you forward with the unspoken reminder that Felix’s only real crime was being a normal boy, one who now is in grave peril thanks to you and you alone. It’s a time-tested story and the expressive characters are animated every bit as beautifully in the story sequences as they are elsewhere.

Max can crawl, run, walk, jump, and drag things, but that’s the extent of his repertoire. He’d never get far without his precious writing utensil, which you must use liberally. Pressing and holding the right trigger suspends direct control of Max and brings up an image of the tool, which interacts with colorful pieces of the architecture at your direction. For instance, a dark-green node can extend to form a ledge, which you can then use as a foothold or sever from its base to produce a movable platform. An orange node betrays the presence of a stone column. The interactive pieces of nature have variable limits, signified by steadily draining supplies of ink. You must figure out how to make the most of each resource.

Cutscenes also prod you forward with the unspoken reminder that Felix’s only real crime was being a normal boy.

Mark my words: you’ll want a ledge there, sooner or later.

As the game progresses, the marker gains additional abilities, and the solutions to puzzles gradually require additional steps. In later scenes, it sometimes feels as if you’re playing a scribble simulator rather than a platformer. Levels typically consist of a series of open spaces wherein you must chain together a few environmental effects (for example, you might have to draw a vine and then direct a current of water so that Max launches at the proper angle to grab the plant life and swing across a chasm), and then you hop along a few more ledges or run along an unremarkable corridor to reach the next such challenge. The difficulty lies in figuring out what you’re supposed to accomplish in those more interactive areas.

Max doesn’t encounter a lot of enemies on his adventure, which is just as well. It’s a pleasure to descend along a series of ledges protruding from the face of a roaring waterfall, admiring the lush foliage and figuring out how to reach the far side of each hazard. Checkpoint placement is typically generous, so that even a fall to your doom means short-lived frustration at worst. However, you come across numerous other situations that prove frustrating because they require quicker reflexes and more precise movement than the game readily facilitates. The worst such moments are chase sequences, which usually find Max fleeing from a giant troll or sliding along a series of crumbling ruins. If Max suddenly needs you to produce a ledge lest he tumble into an abyss, the marker often materializes in a location that is less than ideal for the task at hand. Hurriedly swinging it into position and then drawing a line in the desired pattern is not always a simple task, and sometimes the precise stroke that means the difference between sweet success and disappointing failure is difficult to discern.

The interactive pieces of nature have variable limits, signified by steadily draining supplies of ink.

No matter how beautiful Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is–and typically, it’s very beautiful, with detailed plant life and pleasing light and shadow effects–the moments when you’re forced to play through a particular scene several times because you didn’t anticipate a surprise shift in the landscape are always unwelcome. Even when you know exactly what to do, you may come across instances where you have to make several attempts before Max jumps far enough and grabs a vine that he has barely a chance of reaching. It’s all very doable in the end, especially with practice and patience, but sometimes the developers make you work harder for that elusive victory than is warranted.

Another concern is that the puzzles eventually wear thin because most of them become predictable. There’s sporadic creativity in design for the campaign’s full five to seven hours, such as when you have to figure your way around some nasty lightning bugs or some bomb-tossing goblins, but mostly you perform the same few rote activities with only slight variations. Aside from the aggravating chase scenes, a scavenger hunt for collectibles is your only respite. Max yanks hideous eyeballs from walls and ceilings that lie off the beaten path, and he gathers pieces of a cracked amulet. Each new stage offers a tally to let you know how many objects lurk within, and you can revisit areas if you miss something. However, doing so requires a repeat journey through a bunch of puzzles that lose much of their appeal once you know their solution.

Those slimy spores look friendly, but don’t fall for the act!

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood benefits immensely from attractive art design, and that is supplemented by a variety of puzzles that are initially quite satisfying before finally wearing out their welcome near the end. Consider taking the plunge if you’re itching to dive into another pretty platformer, but otherwise you’re probably better off waiting for a different curse to come along.

Halo: Spartan Assault Review

With Halo: Spartan Assault, Microsoft can say that the Xbox One managed to have a Halo game out during the launch window. The bad news is that it’s not Halo 5 or even another HD anniversary edition. Yet it’s still a Halo game, which means it has a wealth of Covenant grunts to murder with your trusty needler. Spartan Assault reimagines Halo as a twin-stick shooter, delivering on much of the genre’s arcade allure. However, the transition from mobile to consoles has brought with it a bevy of microtransactions, for better or worse. Mostly worse.

The non-numerical Halo games have been fitting avenues to explore other facets of the UNSC beyond Master Chief’s exploits. Many of us were already familiar with SPARTAN-IV commander Sarah Palmer in Spartan Ops, and Spartan Assault makes her a playable character, along with Edward Davis, who appeared in the Halo: Initiation comics. Set after the war of the original trilogy but before Halo 4, the game finds Palmer, Davis, and other members of the UNSC faced with a Covenant invasion rather than a Promethean one. The setting maintains the Halo universe’s curious aversion to normal astronomical objects; if it isn’t a ring-shaped world, it’s a hollow one. In Spartan Assault’s case, the planet of Draetheus V is standard enough, but its moon, X50, isn’t a moon but rather a planet-destroying Forerunner structure. Sound familiar?

In making Spartan Assault a genuine Halo game, developers 343 Industries and Vanguard Entertainment did away with one of the common comforts of many twin-stick shooters: unlimited ammo. It makes for a mild challenge in ammo conservation, until you realize how often fallen foes drop weapons for you to capitalize on. I give Spartan Assault credit for punishing complacency. The ease of the initial levels, along with their bite-size play lengths, makes it tempting to charge into the fray without taking advantage of the environment and the items in the field. Dying at the hands of the occasional wraith or grenade barrage encourages you to strategize. It’s most rewarding when you have the presence of mind to know your ammo count and the cooldown time of your current armor ability, vanquishing foes using your mind as much as your might.

As I progressed through the game’s first few missions, I was motivated to try out every familiar Halo weapon and see how they worked in this game’s elevated camera view. The USMC rifles are reliable as expected, as is the target-tracking ammo of the sadistic needler. I was especially fond of dual-wielding a pair of SMGs, guns known for their inaccuracy in first-person Halo games, but their bullet-spreading tendencies worked great against the agile buggers in Spartan Assault.

Expect to protect and defend glowing red columns.

The iconic Warthog and the free-flying Banshee are nowhere to be found, though more puzzling is the inability to wield an energy sword–not to mention, the ability to withstand three energy sword hits in quick succession. And don’t even bother trying to hijack an occupied Covenant Ghost; you’re better off taking it down with a plasma grenade instead of risking a fatal collision and restarting the level.

Halo vets will recognize the many objectives of Spartan Assault, which skew toward killing in general and focus less on activating switches. The more tense assignments are timed survival missions requiring you and your squad to last three to five minutes. Taken one at a time, these missions satisfy the need for short sessions, though in the scope of the overall game, tearing through Spartan Assault’s 35 sorties makes for a playthrough that shouldn’t take longer than five hours.

Acknowledging the double-dip of porting Spartan Assault on the Xbox One, Microsoft is offering a 66 percent discount to fans who have previously purchased the game for Windows 8 devices. An equally attractive incentive is the introduction of co-op play in five new missions featuring the much-loathed Flood. These levels, with their turnkey switches and their laser turrets that benefit from two operators, are designed with two players in mind. The Flood’s penchant for overwhelming Spartans gives this mode a brief Smash TV-inspired rush that the campaign lacks. These new assignments can all be cleared in less than an hour–and they underscore by the lack of couch co-op and the campaign’s total lack of co-op.

The entire game can be completed without spending real money or even the experience points you earn after each mission. However, even though success is possible, the game does place artificial constraints on you, encouraging you to spend some credits. I have always enjoyed the one-hit-kill prowess of a sniper rifle in any shooter, and it’s disappointing that, aside from a couple of missions, the only way to access such a weapon in Spartan Assault is by spending cash or XP. Then again, I still managed to get my instant-kill fix through the classic Halo magnum.

Now there’s co-op. Too bad you’ll face the Flood.

Greatly disappointing is the lack of permanent ownership of Spartan Assault’s purchased enhancements, since you don’t get to keep these items after using them in a mission. The only reason to get into in-app purchases is to use various boosts and assists to get gold stars for scoring well. Spartan Assault should have succeeded in being a competitive arcade game by the classic definition, one where you strive to beat your friends’ high scores, but victory rings hollow when you can buy your way to the top. Trial and error is needed to figure out which single-use armor abilities and boosts work best in getting the most points in a given mission, so Spartan Assault is best suited for Halo fans with high tolerances for repetition.

Whether you’re hurriedly exiting a Scorpion tank on its last legs or backpedaling away from a gravity-hammer-wielding Brute, Spartan Assault is not short of familiar, albeit select, Halo moments. In-app purchases do not intrude on Spartan Assault’s overall appeal, though the selection of optional items is only of interest if you seek to improve your scores. The limitation on cooperative play is the game’s biggest disappointment, so here’s hoping that Microsoft Studios has more multiplayer levels in mind for possible downloadable content.

Flow Review

There’s a beauty to Flow that’s unique, more than half a decade after it became popular with its release on the PlayStation 3. Its simple visuals and simple music combine with even simpler gameplay to make for an experience that’s trancelike in nature, requiring little from you but offering a lot in return. Flow has since been eclipsed by the developer’s more recent games–Flower and Journey–which fill a similar niche while improving on its core ideas. Yet Flow is as magical now as it was then, even if the magic doesn’t last very long.

Flow might remind you of looking at bacteria under a microscope, though the visuals are more conventionally beautiful. Organisms swim around on a 2D plane you are looking down into, with larger creatures eating the smaller ones. These fishlike beings (similar to aquatic life such as eels and jellyfish) float against a simple watery background, providing a a beautiful combination of shapes both complex and simple, while floating particles add texture to the environment. A subtle blurring effect shows you what’s below the layer of ocean you’re on, giving you a good impression of depth even when you can swim in only two dimensions.

You control various creatures, one at a time, across various stages. Each stage plays out the same way: you begin small, you eat smaller creatures to grow bigger and evolve, and you attack bigger creatures until you can eat them, too. The world is divided into two-dimensional layers, with you swimming deeper and deeper down to progress. If you’re like me, you will feel a natural desire to devour each and every living thing on your way down to the bottom, but nothing forces you to. There are no meters or time limits to worry about. Your pace is entirely your own.

You move almost entirely by tilting the controller in the direction you want to swim, occasionally hitting a button to perform a creature-specific action. The game’s single-screen instructions (Flow’s only instance of direction or assistance) say a button press gives you a boost, but this is not always the case. You might do something else, such as spin, and finding each creature’s unique characteristic is part of what keeps you playing. Since each creature has the same goal (eat, evolve, and dive deeper) and each layer of water is visually similar to the last, the different abilities are your only real change of pace in the short amount of time it takes you to reach the credits.

The aesthetic walks an impressive line between simple and complex.

The only time Flow has anything remotely close to a challenge is when you go up against a creature of equal or greater size than yourself. The ensuing fight could have you tilting the controller more frantically in an effort to attack the enemy’s weak points as it moves, but even this doesn’t carry with it a threat of death or lost progress. There is no fear of losing; if you find yourself beaten by a creature bigger than yourself, you are merely sent up to a safer layer of water where you can recover.

While Flow does have an end, the journey is more important than the destination. The visuals and the music have a Zen-like quality to them, and the simplicity of tilting the controller makes for an almost meditative state throughout the game. While the actions you’re performing could be seen as violent (considering everything boils down to one creature eating countless others), the experience feels more like a gentle float down a lazy river than a frantic swim through shark-infested waters, even during the most frantic fights. A friend or three can jump in at any time, but nothing is added to the experience, and, in fact, it’s more placid alone. Flow is more of an art piece to be quietly admired than a challenge to be overcome with company.

In Flow, danger is never all that dangerous.

Since there’s nothing especially technical about how Flow looks or plays, it benefits little from the upgrade to PlayStation 4 hardware. It does run better, avoiding the occasional frame-rate hiccups seen on the PS3, and it’s still beautiful and unique, though no more beautiful than before. If you bought the PS3 version, Flow is available to you free via Sony’s cross-buy program and warrants a re-play, if only through the lend of the developer’s later experiments in interactive tranquility.

Flow has adapted well to the PS4 ecosystem and holds up remarkably well, though it is neither as serene as Flower or as touching as Journey. Nevertheless, Flow is obviously the common DNA those beauties share. If you have somehow found yourself in a situation where you can try only one Thatgamecompany experience, this probably isn’t it. But if you want a cool, oddly relaxing experience, Flow is still remarkably unique years after it first came out.

X Rebirth Review

Einstein taught us that space is both homogeneous and isotropic–that is, on a large scale, the universe is smooth and uniform in all directions. It’s empty out there. Like many space games before it, X Rebirth depicts an unrealistically vibrant universe bursting with color and texture, and that’s as it should be. A near-vacuum makes a dreary backdrop for a video game, at least for a human observer.

It isn’t X Rebirth’s inauthentic view of space that should anger you; it’s that this sequel is a galactic collision of unparalleled scale, an interstellar parade of bad ideas badly executed. Just as the observable universe has no center, neither does space exploration game X Rebirth find a foundation from which to grow outward, and I am unsure how to begin describing its failures. I can only begin at the quantum level, pulling out each particle and analyzing its deficiencies. And so I start in the cockpit, where most galactic adventures begin.

The Albion Skunk is the aptly named vessel that carries you on this journey. Unless you’re peering out of a space port’s window or piloting one of the game’s different drones, you always see space through the Skunk’s front window, and overlooking the aesthetically dull control panel that tells you the ship’s condition. In fact, you look at most of X Rebirth’s menus in the cockpit, each list pulling up on a digital display viewable by both you the player and protagonist pilot Ren Otani.

This menu integration might have been a sensible way to draw you further into this universe, but no amount of immersion would have been enough to veil the system’s grave deficiencies. Pulling up so much as a simple galactic map requires a ridiculous number of keystrokes, with each submenu buffered by just enough input lag and unnecessary animation to cause impatience. Furthermore, the menu doesn’t always take up a sensible portion of the screen, making it hard to read intricate mission objectives–and even harder to read them when a particularly garish spacescape shines from behind the Skunk’s menu screen.

For a near-vacuum, it sure is busy in space!

Garish spacescapes are common in X Rebirth, though there are sights of real beauty. Ships feature a remarkable amount of detail, and space stations and capital ships catch the eye with their intricate industrial designs. Rushing between systems via the game’s space highways can be a visual delight, particularly as you watch ships and structures approach and then race by. When the color scheme embraces tranquil blues and developer Egosoft exercises visual restraint, the hazy background nebulae and tumbling asteroids are a treat. All too often, however, the view erupts with harsh orange and turquoise hues, making you wonder if you shouldn’t stock the Albion Skunk with sunscreen. A vibrant vision of space is typically pleasing enough, but X Rebirth’s depiction occasionally surpasses “meticulous” and surges straight into “gaudy.”

Buy low and sell high. It’s a solid economic policy, and it forms the backbone of X Rebirth’s explore-fight-collect-build gameplay loop. It’s an inviting loop, and I found myself pushing onward to collect enough funds, hiring enough ships to join my squad, and building enough structures in the hope of calling the result a true empire.

Sometimes, doing so means shooting spacecraft piloted by members of the slave-trading Plutarch Mining Corporation. Combat is functional, but ship controls are loose, though I never felt as though I wasn’t properly directing the action. Regardless, the Skunk is your only ride for the duration, so get used to the way it looks and feels, though you can improve its performance with enhanced weaponry, shields, and so forth. Fortunately, you will build up an entire squad of vessels that perform various vital actions on your behalf, assisting you in combat, erecting structures, and ferrying goods about the sector. Massive battles are visually explosive, momentarily interrupting the slow-paced trading with fiery combat.

This sequel is a galactic collision of unparalleled scale, an interstellar parade of bad ideas badly executed.

Oh God. Just… Oh God.

And boy is trading slow-paced. Buying and selling goods isn’t an immediate process, or even an efficient one. Instead, you must wait for many minutes on end as your sluggish trading ship edges ever closer to the trade port, giving you an opportunity to poke around the sector, or more likely, to go grab a glass of wine and peruse the latest issue of Science Magazine from cover to cover. You also must maintain fuel reserves, which can come as a shock the first time a hired pilot informs you of his fuel shortage over the comm and has you scrambling to figure out how to rectify the situation, given how ordering your ship to fuel up is not an option you can find in the game’s menus.

Building up a fleet takes time and money, and you don’t find capable crew members free-floating in space, but rather within space stations, which you explore on foot after docking. First-person exploration could have been a grand addition, taking the X series that much closer to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink games developer Derek Smart wanted his Battlecruiser series to be, but never was. It soon becomes obvious, however, that traversing cookie-cutter stations sucks the mystery out of space travel, leaving behind horrifying human visages that spout absolute drivel in the most excruciating tone of voice imaginable. You see the same grotesquely scarred faces over and over again, and engaging one of these unblinking ghouls results in absolute nonsense. Any given conversation is utterly devoid of logic. Characters are routinely rude when you approach them, then become delighted, and then lapse into obnoxiousness again. In the meanwhile, female characters frequently whine “Ew! Slimy green lizard things are everywhere!” in the shrillest possible manner, as if they are 1950s housewives from classic cartoons, crying atop the kitchen table and swatting at pesky mice.

Colorful is one thing, but X Rebirth’s artists really should have turned things down a notch.

That line is shrieked in regard to the reptilian Teladi race, whose existence in the X universe is well established. Perhaps Egosoft wanted to use first-person exploration to further develop the game’s tone and deepen its lore. Sadly, a universe full of rude, moronic space travelers barely capable of communicating normal thoughts in a logical order is not a compelling place to be.

Instead, having to dock at a station and walk around looking for the right merchants becomes a chore. My first foray into a station delighted me; I could loot lockers and crates for marketable items, leading me to believe that X Rebirth might spill into role-playing territory. Alas, clicking on lockers becomes monotonous busywork, as does roaming the cut-and-paste hallways looking for vendors and crew members for hire. These places are as lifeless as a white dwarf, even in their underpopulated lounges, each living statue stiffly waiting for you to click on it. Characters speak of their own accord only when prompting you to take part in a ridiculous-beyond-measure minigame in which you engage in surreal small talk to earn a few discounts. It wasn’t long before I avoided this minigame altogether, however: no matter how deep the discount, I couldn’t stomach the stupid dialogue, which made me question how such imbeciles could have devised any form of space travel.

It isn’t just in the space stations where you go hunting for discounts. Out in the black beyond, you glimpse icons that urge you to investigate the objects they identify; examine enough of them, and you unlock discounts and side missions. Little lowercase i’s are splattered all over the place, but you have to be close enough to see them, and you must have line of sight. And thus your adventure turns into a vapid Easter egg hunt in which you float around satellite arrays seeking icons, and then soar close enough to them to interact with them. It isn’t uncommon to briefly see an icon identifying a side mission only to have it flicker away in a flash, forcing you to maneuver carefully around the starbase hoping to catch another glimpse.

According to the theory of special relativity, X Rebirth stinks.

Don’t expect those missions to work properly once you graciously accept them from your sneering contacts, however. Each X game has suffered from a certain number of rough edges at launch, and you could be forgiven for assuming that like those games, X Rebirth would be superficially glitchy but eminently playable. Yet no matter how low your expectations might be for the newest X’s stability, the game still manages to sink lower. Only a few hours in, and a mission proved impossible to complete, leading me to commiserate with other players suffering from the same game-ending bug in Internet forums. After downloading a saved game file from a helpful comrade, I continued my journey, only to have a side mission task me with destroying a story-critical capital ship, leaving me to wander for hours wondering why I couldn’t find my mission objective.

A universe full of rude, moronic space travelers barely capable of communicating normal thoughts in a logical order is not a compelling place to be.

Listing all of the bugs I encountered would take up inordinate amounts of space, and so I offer here a random array. Crashes too numerous to count. Poor frame rates that had me wondering why I’d spent so much money on modern computer hardware. Suddenly unresponsive dialogue that left me stuck mid-conversation. Enemy ships flying around in the middle of space station geometry, keeping me from completing missions. Trading ships that simply wouldn’t conduct the assigned transaction. That last one was particularly aggravating, considering how much time you must wait for functional transactions to complete. All too often, X Rebirth had me asking the age-old question: “Is it a bug or a feature?”

The fact that it’s too difficult to tell the difference tells you all you must know about X Rebirth. You might assume a bright future for the game, given Egosoft’s solid history of supporting its games after release–and given the community’s dedication to crafting fixes and modifications that further improve these starry treks. X Rebirth’s failings are rooted too deeply to simply be patched away, however. No matter what your level of enthusiasm for the X series is, do your best to escape the pull of Rebirth’s gravity. It’s only bound to cause a fatal crash.

State of Decay: Breakdown Review

State of Decay: Breakdown raises an important question: does downloadable content still count as content when it takes out more content than it adds? After all, this is still Trumbull Valley as we left it back in June, but here there are no squabbles with military hard-asses or heroic attempts to overcome blocked mountain passages. This, rather, is a bleak scramble for survival, and one in which the zombies are all but guaranteed to win.

In short, it’s the sandbox so many of us wanted back in the early days of summer. Though bootable as a separate experience from the main narrative, it’s meant to address the perception that there was little left to do once the trajectory of the story cut off progression, and thus the potential for replay, aside from milking the last save file. But this addition, priced at almost half the cost of the full game, adds no new enemies or locations; instead, it guts the story completely aside from side missions.

This, rather, is a bleak scramble for survival, and one in which the zombies are all but guaranteed to win.

A zombie can never be too dead.

Breakdown is an apt title. The core experience involves the usual business of fortifying communities and scrounging for supplies, but it also throws in the need to repair a busted RV and to select five survivors to take along on the most awkward road trip of all time. Alas, it’s a road trip to nowhere, because “escape” leads you back to the same town, but the circumstances grow direr upon each visit. You may start in a random location at a higher level than in the previous playthrough and with the buddies you brought along, but cars become more scarce, zombies become stronger and more numerous, and resources don’t respawn. It’s a Sisyphean vision of hell, and one where success is rewarded with misery. Repeat it long enough, and survival seems less and less likely.

The goal, simply, is to survive as long as possible. I’m currently sitting at the seventh difficulty level out of 10, and already I’ve reached the point where I’m about ready to take up the undead on their pushy invitations to join their numbers. It has taken many hours to reach this point, and in the process, the brutal difficulty has forced a welcome adoption of different tactics that were only toyed with in the core narrative. Firecrackers, mines, and Molotov cocktails become more valuable than standard weapons, for instance, and firing a gun has such horrifying consequences that I tried to avoid firing one altogether. By the fourth difficulty tier, even cars are weak, which means no more joyrides where you mow zombies down like grass.

It’s a Sisyphean vision of hell, and one where success is rewarded with misery.

Admittedly, it could have been harder. The repetition involved with each new cycle turns you into a Trumbull Valley native rather than a tourist, and as a result, you start new playthroughs knowing the locations of essential sites such as grocery stores, police stations, and pharmacies. The locations of survivors and safe houses may change with each playthrough, but the familiarity with the rest of State of Decay’s elements allows some room for hope. And if you die? Breakdown at least has the decency to start you back at the same level rather than forcing you to relive the experience again.

So what’s new here? Not much, aside from the hefty batch of new “heroes” you find scattered among the existing cast of characters, although their specialized professions, such as paramedic and soldier, make them ideal for the privileged seats in your RV. If there’s a problem, it’s that most of the requisites to unlock them lead to hours of mindless grinding. Take the dealer: if you want him and his godly ability to send you a car whenever you need one (at the cost of influence), you have to slaughter 400 zombies with nothing more than your car door.

There’s a time and a place for tailgating.

But beyond that, this is the same State of Decay I already knew and largely love. It’s a shame, then, that this means it’s also susceptible to many of the same bugs and glitches. Zombies still tend to walk through walls with all the nonchalance of Casper, storage containers claim to be full even when they’re empty, and companions sometimes insist on taking leisurely strolls even when the zombie hordes are charging in plain sight.

Breakdown is thus the kind of DLC that probably should have been in the game in the first place. Seven bucks is a steep price to pay for what amounts to a shake-up of the original adventure, although to its credit, it delivers a satisfyingly harrowing experience for players who didn’t find sufficient challenges the first time around. Indeed, in its best moments, it achieves a commendable expression of what an open-world survival experience should be. Every scrap of building material becomes precious, and items such as morphine assume the veneration once accorded to religious relics. And with around 10 hours needed to pick each cycle clean, there’s plenty to do. Life in Breakdown may be nasty and brutish as a matter of course, but play your cards right, and it doesn’t need to be short.

NES Remix Review

NES Remix is the video game equivalent of a family vacation photo album. If you went on the trip, the snapshots in the album might bring memories of happy times flooding back. But if those photos don’t represent a cherished part of your past, they probably won’t have any effect on you. NES Remix serves up a bunch of bite-size moments from Nintendo Entertainment System games, and if you played and loved those games when you were younger, those positive associations can make playing these nuggets a warm, fuzzy experience. But if you don’t bring that nostalgic context to NES Remix yourself, playing the game will feel like looking at a stranger’s cherished family photos.

The Legend of Zelda is an enduring classic, one of the greatest and most important games of all time. In NES Remix, you relive many iconic moments from it. Your first task is simply to walk into the cave on the screen where the game begins and collect the sword from the old man who tells you that it’s dangerous to go alone. Grab the sword and the objective is done; you’re then whisked off to a screen infested with octoroks that you must slay. Then you restore your health at a rejuvenating pool, buy an item from a merchant, and enter a dungeon. If your memory can fill in the gaps in the experience, it can stir up some feelings of what it was like to embark on the game’s heroic quest for the first time. But on their own, these objectives aren’t interesting, and the disjointed way in which they’re cut out of the full game and presented without context means that anyone who hasn’t already played The Legend of Zelda won’t come away with any understanding of what makes this game so extraordinary.

Even though he was originally known as Jumpman when Donkey Kong was released, Mario wasn’t nearly as good at jumping then as he is now.

The same can be said of NES Remix’s handling of Super Mario Bros. For lifelong fans like me, stomping a goomba on World 1-1 is enough to fill my heart with nostalgic warmth. But it’s only because I have memories of many happy childhood hours spent running and leaping through the game’s eight worlds that such moments have this effect on me. Because I didn’t play Clu Clu Land as a kid, I didn’t feel drawn to the snippets of it that are included in NES Remix. And in the case of Ice Climbers, a game I enjoyed as a child, playing it here was frustrating; as an indiscriminating youngster, it never occurred to me how much of that game’s difficulty results from your character’s strange, irritating jumping arc.

Turns out Pinball on the NES wasn’t a great game.

In addition to gameplay challenges that are lifted right out of classic and not-so-classic NES games, there are “remix” stages that change things up in some way. A few are endless runner-style stages that have Mario running automatically through stages from Super Mario Bros, and your only focus is making sure he leaps over hazards and avoids enemies. Some are stages from Donkey Kong, but they replace Mario with Link, who cannot jump, which makes avoiding barrels and rescuing Pauline much more difficult. But most of the remix stages aren’t all that clever. One has you playing Mario Bros. upside down. Others shroud stages from Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong Jr. in darkness, an interesting visual twist that doesn’t actually make playing through those levels much more difficult.

At $15, NES Remix is a pricey piece of packaged nostalgia. For me, playing through these mini-challenges and unlocking new stages and new games was an enjoyable whirlwind tour of some of my fondest gaming memories. But then again, I’ve been on this vacation before.

Strength of the Sword 3 Review

The title “Strength of the Sword 3” is a bit mystifying, because this game isn’t actually a sequel to anything. Rather, it’s an interesting game made by the tiny team at Ivent Games. It’s numbered “3” because the team never wants to make sequels, so it finishes its “trilogies” from the get-go. I was curious about this because when I started Strength of the Sword 3, it felt like it had expected me to come in already knowing gameplay nuances and mechanics from the previous two games…only those two games didn’t exist.

The game has a simple premise, presented in a charming little animated intro scene: a monstrous horde is invading the land, and a golem warrior has been delivered to stem the advancing tide of foul creatures and restore whatever harmony was there before. But even the most heaven-sent of warriors needs divine patience to make it through combat with these hellish hordes. Strength of the Sword 3 is an incredibly challenging game, with enemy battles that require you to make use of all the resources and skills available to you in order to win. Difficulty settings? Forget ’em; the game has one setting, and that setting is murderously tough.

That’s probably just the death-scented air freshener we just sprayed.

Strength of the Sword 3 doesn’t have levels as much as it has collected sets of enemy encounters. The game is a protracted boss rush: your golem warrior is plopped into an environment, enemies appear, and you need to kill them. The environments are arena-like, with no exits or safe spaces to flee to: you either defeat your opponents or die trying. And die you will, many times, because damage is high and the game’s forgiveness is very, very low. The AI in Strength of the Sword 3 is impressive; the creatures you fight react to your movements and attacks with surprising defensive and aggressive acumen. You certainly can’t spam special attacks and expect to win, because the monsters will counter your attacks and retaliate with a vengeance. The only way to survive is to learn your skills, learn your enemies’ skills, and figure out how to use your abilities to counteract theirs–a process that requires lots of trial and error. Strength of the Sword 3 isn’t a long game, but it takes lots of retries to finish.

Fortunately for your fighter, Strength of the Sword 3 features a robust combat system. You’ve got a standard array of sword slashes, shield-based defense abilities, and a rolling dodge, but you’ve also got a nice variety of stabs, dashing spin-slices, jumping stabs, and special combos that use stock from your mana gauge and do lots of damage…provided you actually hit with them. As you advance through the game, you gain access to more abilities and items, such as throwing knives, grenades, fire breath, and limited healing, as well as obtain swords and shields with different attributes. As you use items and skills over time, their effectiveness increases.

Difficulty settings? Forget ’em; the game has one setting, and that setting is murderously tough.

This game is a beast! Also, so is that beast.

As great as the combat is, there are some serious barriers to enjoying it. Some of the controls are a bit odd, like having dodge and dash tied to the same button. The game has a list of moves you can look up at any time, but there’s no place to get the hang of the controls outside of actual combat. Some of the early stages give you a list of skills to try, and tell you if you perform their inputs correctly, but they don’t bother to show how or why the skills are useful. It’s tough to learn when you should use skills like the running dash and the shield bash when you are interrupted or immediately punished after merely trying them. While the lack of hand-holding is nice, it’s frustrating to be thrown into the hottest flames of battle from the get-go. Since you can’t learn by doing, and it’s difficult to figure out organically through play, you may feel like you want to give up early on. This is why I was surprised that no previous games in the “series” existed–the game seemed to assume I already knew what I was doing!

Another major issue with Strength of the Sword 3 is that the enemies you fight aren’t that interesting. Think of some of the most memorable boss encounters in challenging games like Dark Souls, how intimidating and awesome the foes looked and how their attacks and skills filled you with dread and awe. Strength of the Sword 3’s enemies are certainly tough, but they don’t look or feel the part in their appearance or their attacks: you fight a cartoony goblin or an orc-type creature one fight, only to fight something that looks pretty similar in the next fight, but hey, this one flies! While there’s certainly charm to the game’s cartoony visual style, the fights lack the sort of spectacle and clever gimmickry you would want in such a combat-focused game.

Repetitive enemies test your mental physical endurance.

There are a few more irritations: the tendency of the game to go into “helpful” (but really not) slow motion when you are struck, occasional camera bugs, and the wholly unpleasant experience of getting trapped in corners of the arena while enemies simply go to town on you (though getting stuck there is usually your own fault). But these are occasional occurrences that can be overlooked to some extent; the steep learning curve and the boring enemy design are much harder to forgive. In the end, there’s some interesting gameplay and a rewarding challenge to be found in Strength of the Sword 3, but you’re going to need some serious patience to get the most out of this game.

Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers

There is a term used in Japan to describe the bevy of licensed anime and manga games released every year: “kyara-ge,” an abbreviation of “character games.” The term carries some negative connotations, since it’s generally presumed that the quality of the game itself will be subpar compared to its non-licensed peers. But as kids who grew up with classic series reach adulthood and get jobs developing games themselves, there have been marked improvements in kyara-ge: when you have genuine affection for a licensed franchise, you feel a lot more invested in the quality of the product. It’s still exceptionally rare to find kyara-ge on the level of something like Batman: Arkham City, but these games are often at least mildly enjoyable–a category that Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers falls into nicely.

Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers is a one-on-one 3D fighting game based on Saint Seiya, a Japanese anime and manga franchise that began in the mid-’80s. Many kids growing up around that time period, especially from France, Italy, and Latin America, have fond memories of Knights of the Zodiac, which had a following comparable to that of The Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in North America. Previous Saint Seiya games have actually been localized and released in several of these territories–including a Warriors-style PlayStation 3 action game–but this is the first time Namco Bandai games has released a Saint Seiya game in English.

From the heavens to the oceans to the underworld, everywhere is a battlefield!

Brave Soldiers developer Dimps is no stranger to anime-themed fighting games, having also worked on numerous Dragonball Z games. It knows well what fans expect out of this sort of game: true-to-the-source visuals, a story mode, online and offline versus, and a whole mess of unlockable characters, collectibles, and extras. Brave Soldiers delivers on all these fronts: there’s a very lengthy story mode that covers multiple arcs of the anime/manga plot, a gigantic roster of characters (over 50, with up to 15 variations for each), character variants to use, beneficial items to customize your fighters with, and a massive gallery filled with art, music, and a staggering number of images and info about Japanese Saint Seiya toys and collectible cards. If you want to unlock everything the game has to offer, Brave Soldiers is going to keep you busy for quite some time. However, you’re going to have to actually want to unlock everything, which entails either being a preexisting Saint Seiya fan, becoming a fan through playing the game, or enjoying the gameplay enough to want to play over and over again. This is where problems start to arise.

The biggest issue is that Brave Soldiers’ fighting engine is noticeably shallow. Every character has strong and weak attacks that can be chained together for basic combos, a basic jump/dash maneuver, and throws. Stronger strikes, special attacks, and homing maneuvers can be performed at the cost of your cosmo meter, which builds up on landing and receiving attacks but can also be charged up manually. A hugely damaging big bang attack can be executed using three full cosmo bars, resulting in an impressively animated attack sequence that expertly showcases the fantastical, melodramatic fighting attacks of the source material. Another gauge, the seventh sense meter, builds up over time and can be triggered when full, giving the character that triggers it a power boost. Combat is pretty easy to get the hang of, but there isn’t much in the way of depth: don’t expect many advanced combos or strategies here. It’s fun to assault foes with special skills and big bang attacks, but the luster wears off as time rolls on.

Everything in the world of Seiya is pretty, especially the heroes.

And time does roll on, especially if you’re going through the game’s story mode. The story covers three arcs of the original story (Sanctuary, Poseidon, and Hades), and takes many hours to complete (more if you aim to fulfill every fight’s optional objectives). Don’t expect things to make much sense unless you’re already familiar with the franchise, because a good chunk of the story is skipped over to drop the heroes smack-dab in the midst of the Sanctuary arc’s temple fights. I had a passing knowledge of Saint Seiya, but I required someone who was a longtime series fan to watch me play through parts of the story mode and explain elements that were omitted or glossed over before things even began to make sense.

The presentation doesn’t do much to help, either: dialogue between characters is presented with still heads above dialogue boxes, and rather than rendering the more dramatic twists and turns of these epic fights with cinematics (or having you play them), the game simply presents them as touched-up screenshots lifted from the original anime series. The voice-over is in Japanese with English text, and the translation is lacking, with some odd text display choices (not fitting all of a character’s spoken dialogue into a single box, for example) and stilted, awkward exchanges that fail to capture the excitement of a bunch of hyper-powered, extremely pretty armored anime men beating the ever-loving crap out of each other. If you don’t know much about Saint Seiya, the story mode won’t make you a fan, and if you do, you might still be disappointed in some of the ways it’s presented.

The CPU fights are also a slog. On the standard difficulty, the computer is downright brain-dead, falling for simple tricks and repeated attacks, all while choreographing special attacks in such a way that makes them incredibly easy to dodge. Battles typically devolve into using the “dodge behind foe” skill when taking damage to interrupt foes and start your own combos, and then running away, charging up, and spamming super skills until somebody tries to get in close and the whole process repeats again There are some fun dialogue exchanges between the fighters during battle, but it’s hard to read the subtitles in the midst of a fight. Even worse is that, for story reasons, some fights have to be repeated multiple times before chapters are cleared. Since all of the interesting fight elements occur in text outside of the fights, the CPU combat feels all the more unexciting.

Battles are dynamic, but they aren’t terribly cerebral.

Fights against human foes are considerably more fun, simplistic as they are. You can use characters and variants you’ve unlocked through story mode, as well as customize your characters with status-augmenting orbs you can purchase with currency earned in-game. Online play supports both player and ranked matches, and features fully functional lobbies for the latter. The game features a staggering number of character and costume choices, many of which are unlocked in-game, though there is plenty of downloadable content for devoted Saint Seiya fans to download and add to their collections.

There’s no denying that Saint Seiya has had more effort put into it than a run-of-the-mill licensed anime game. It expertly captures the look and feel of the ’80s anime, and gives fans the means to feel like they are in control of a hyper-powered character launching all manner of crazy attacks. And once you’ve got a fair number of characters unlocked, you can have simplistic fun going up against other players. But with its limited depth, Brave Soldiers can’t hold its own against more technical fighters on the market, and the tedium and lackluster presentation of the story mode won’t give anyone who’s not already a fan of the series much of a reason to become one. But if you were one of those kids who grew up with this series–or perhaps discovered it many years later when the English editions finally began rolling out in the early aughts–then you’ll find a lot of nice fan service to enjoy here.