Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry Review

As the sea-faring partner in crime to Edward Kenway, Jackdaw quartermaster Adewale often projected a sense of self that made him a ripe candidate for the assassins. Adewale is now ready to forge own path, though Freedom Cry is just a small window into Adewale’s solo exploits; we don’t bear witness to his initiation into the Brotherhood, and this downloadable content merely teases us with a Templar pursuit in its opening minutes, which quickly goes awry in a storm.

If this stormy start rings a bell, it’s because it curiously mirrors the beginning of Black Flag, except now it’s Adewale lying on a beach in the West Indies with a mystery package from the Templars. While he’s eager to resume his mission, his detour in tracking the package’s recipient leads him to Bastienne, a madam in Port-au-Prince. Given Adewale’s firsthand experience as a slave and his inherent sense of justice, his interests in freeing the local slaves align with the madam’s. Considering Bastienne’s association with the Templars, their alliance is a tenuous one, which is further complicated when they don’t see eye to eye on how to best initiate a rebellion.

An uneasy trust is established with Bastienne.

Whereas Black Flag merely touched upon the plight of slaves in the New World, slavery is the main thematic thrust of Freedom Cry. The center of Port-au-Prince provides limitless opportunities to steal keys to open cages and end human auctions stealthily or brutally. Echoing a scene in Black Flag where Kenway is carrying a dying character, Adewale has opportunities to carry poor injured slaves to hideaways in the jungle. It’s infinite slave spawning as designed, and given your obligations to the main story quests, the perpetual influx of slaves is a blunt allegory about how freeing such captives isn’t a task for one man, let alone one assassin. Yet when you start seeing runaway slaves pop up from the same spots and chased along the same paths repeatedly, these respawns bring out the game’s monotony. Moreover, there’s no penalty for ignoring these rescue missions aside from missing out on bonus items. It feels mildly twisted that slaves are still treated as a commodity even after you set them free. The more you liberate, the greater the access to optional enhancements, such as more ammo pouches and a steel-forged machete. The story justifies this with exposition that shows the freed slaves are working toward your cause and giving you resources to free others. That doesn’t change the discomforting fact that these humans have been itemized and given a value related to various upgrades.

Spread across nine missions, each with its own series of goals, Freedom Cry plays like a sampler platter of the many mission types in Black Flag. There are ships to sink, suspects to tail, and targets to kill. Just because this mini campaign is a fraction of the size of Kenway’s adventure doesn’t mean the missions themselves have to be smaller. Yet that’s what you get with a couple of the eavesdropping settings; one confines you within a bar, rather than asking you to snoop via long walks through town. There’s nothing wrong with these brief objectives, though they do give a sense that the game is more jam-packed with goals than it actually is. Like most other Assassin’s Creed games, Freedom Cry is a more gratifying experience when you’re accomplishing certain missions stealthily. It’s all the more rewarding to liberate plantations quietly, since land owners begin to kill slaves once you’re spotted.

The perpetual influx of slaves is a blunt allegory about how freeing such captives isn’t a task for one man, let alone one assassin.

Fortune favors the stealthy strategist.

Between the dense town of Port-au-Prince and the adjacent jungle that provides cover for freed slaves, island life can feel rather confining. So it’s to Freedom Cry’s credit that it features the same mainline and optional content ratio of Black Flag. That includes a segment of the Caribbean available to explore by sea with no fewer than nine question marks worth investigating, as well as fort-invading, harpooning, and diving for treasure within sunken ships. While this gameplay loop very much resembles what you would experience on the seas of Black Flag, the added presence of slave ships to liberate provides a new, albeit minor, level of strategy in ship combat. The challenge comes in destroying escorts without damaging slave ships, a tough task depending on how close to each other ships remain in relation to your cannons’ trajectories. The one drawback is that these opportunities to save large groups of slaves at sea in a single battle undermine the value of spending time freeing slaves on land one person at a time.

Adewale has a much cooler head than Edward Kenway, so it’s easy to picture him adept at wielding swords and pistols while gracefully taking over enemy ships. Yet because of the limited resources of the resistance, he spends most of the game with brutal tools like a heavily used machete and the blunderbuss. However crude, the machete affords Adewale the same counter and break defense moves that we’ve seen from many other assassins. As a rare shotgun-style weapon for the series, the blunderbuss is highly effective in killing at least four colonists in a single round, and dubiously so when you have slaves and other bystanders in the line of fire. Since the main missions take less than four hours to clear, upgrading both Adewale and his ship is a much more abbreviated–and ultimately optional–endeavor than the deeper enhancement paths in Black Flag. You gain access to rope, sleep, and berserk darts early on, as well as the smoke bomb, which is a crowd-stunning weapon that, as it always has, gives too much power to the player.

Freedom Cry plays like a sampler platter of the many mission types in Black Flag.

From the infectious sea shanties to the jovial singing circles at the taverns, Black Flag was certainly the most musically vocal game in the series. Freedom Cry manages to match that, which is an achievement when you find out it doesn’t feature sea shanties. This time, the in-game singing comes from the slaves tending the fields. Whether the songs were the earliest form of slave songs or merely hymns that evolved from African origins, I couldn’t discern. Whatever their sources, the songs add texture to this cast of captive non-player characters, not to mention the game overall. Even Adewale participates when he uses a one-line chant as a password within the resistance movement. And while the non-vocal Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired music of Black Flag was functional at best, Freedom Cry’s soundtrack gives the sea combat an epic atmosphere that the ship battles of the main game lacked. This suspiciously memorable soundtrack compelled me to check the game’s credits, and where I learned that the music was composed by Remember Me’s talented Olivier Deriviere.

With the strongest ensemble cast in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag wasn’t short of assassins and pirates worthy of their own playable tales, DLC or otherwise. Freedom Cry is more than just another Assassin’s Creed IV chapter with a reskinned protagonist, but its troubled handling of dark themes makes this a turbulent voyage.

Bandfuse: Rock Legends Review

It has been quite a while since I’ve had a good excuse to pull out the old Ibanez sitting in my closet collecting dust, but BandFuse: Rock Legends’ mix of rhythm game rocking and guitar training provided an excellent incentive. It blurs the line between musical rehearsal and plain-old fun, giving everyone from total guitar novices to more seasoned players the tools to rock out while improving their chops. While it might lack some of the more useful extras and visual pizzazz of the recent Rocksmith games, BandFuse is fun to pick up and play and delivers a straightforward guitar tablature-focused experience.

Getting the visuals and audio to sync up properly on HDTVs is one of the biggest nuisances plaguing the rhythm game genre. Spending a half-hour fiddling with finicky hardware tends to kill the mood when you just want to dive in and play. BandFuse takes a smart detour around all of that with the AudioLink adapter, a nice piece of kit that plugs into the back of your console and lets you stream the audio out to your TV or stereo through composite cables. It’s lag-free, works perfectly, and sounds phenomenal. I also appreciate that the adapter includes a separate headphone jack to let you rock at high volume without blasting out your entire household.

Luckily, BandFuse’s sound is far classier than Godzilla’s.

Once you plug in and tune up–a thankfully intuitive and speedy process–you can dive into any selection in BandFuse’s entire 55-track arsenal with a quick play session or explore them all in a more traditional campaign mode. The latter does away with any elaborate story trappings or goofy character gimmicks. You simply rock your way through a series of increasingly tough tours with names like Venomous Licks and Behemoths of Rock, earning money with each performance to go toward unlocking subsequent stages. Each tour offers a mix of multi-song gigs and one-off challenges to plow through, and the natural progression weaves in harder songs at a gradual pace.

Track-wise, BandFuse’s eclectic mix of jams skews toward the rock, punk, and metal end of the spectrum. Face-melters like Children of Bodom’s “Are You Dead Yet” and Testament’s “Souls of Black” top a pleasantly finger-punishing stretch of the list, though plenty of catchy hits spanning the past four and a half decades make it in there too. Some tunes are recycled more than once as you go along, but rather than irritate, this structure encourages you to crank up the difficulty a little bit higher to push your skills as you progress and encounter tunes you’ve already played.

Don’t worry, Slash. You’ll be back from Cali in no time.

BandFuse’s biggest strength is the way it balances its gameplay elements with more serious guitar practice. There’s a welcome focus on realism, but the fun of playing a game and boosting your score isn’t lost in the mix. While it’s not the most attractive setup, the no-nonsense interface makes it easy to gauge what’s happening onscreen and what you’re being asked to play. Instead of flying at you down a vertical runway, Guitar Hero-style, notes are charted out on a side-scrolling horizontal fret board that mirrors standard guitar tab. Anyone who has thumbed through a guitar magazine or hopped on the Internet to look up the chords to their favorite radio hit will feel right at home.

A forgiving scoring system leaves lots of room to improvise and fiddle around between the notes and chords you’re meant to play. You’re not penalized unless you miss the notes altogether, and even then it’s impossible to fail a song completely. This flexibility is awesome for experimenting on the lower difficulty tiers, where newcomers really benefit from the freedom to ease into more complex playing styles. It’s a freedom that evaporates entirely on the highest difficulty setting when you have to play songs note for note as the fret board fills with dizzying chaos meant for pro-level players.

Despite five different challenge levels to suit a broad range of playing abilities–from the total newbie to the hair-twirling shredmaster–it’s hard to find the sweet spot as you outgrow your current skill range and try tunes on a higher setting. Shifting up and down across different skill levels is an uneven, jarring experience to say the least. If you have moderate guitar-playing abilities, the easiest settings get boring in a hurry, but stepping it up a notch throws a whole lot more at you all at once. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and flustered. This isn’t a total drag, however, because it spurs you to actually practice and improve your playing.

You like rock? BandFuse has you covered!

To that aim, BandFuse’s learner-focused ShredU section packs lots of tutorial videos and inspirational vignettes from guitar pros like Slash, Mike Ness, Zakk Wylde, and more. While only a handful are interactive, they’re very informative, assuming you’re in the mood to sit and watch hours of footage rather than actually play. The Lick Lab and Practice menus are more useful if you’re in a hands-on mood, because they let you tweak the speed of any song in the game to practice at a slower pace and even loop specific parts until you’ve mastered them. These diversions are helpful if you’re looking to learn, even if they’re not as entertaining as the musical minigame found in the competition.

Whether you plug in a guitar or a bass, the instrument sound quality is top-notch, and both offer a different challenge with a wide assortment of tracks that will keep even the most skilled musicians on their toes. A trio of virtual FX pedals include adjustable levels of autowah, overdrive, and digital delay to tinker with. Between those and a handful of amplifiers, there’s enough to fine-tune your sound even if the limited selection doesn’t come close to satiating the needs of more dedicated pedal enthusiasts. You can also plug in a USB microphone to sing along, though both this and local multiplayer require extra adapters and hardware.

BandFuse’s biggest strength is the way it balances its gameplay elements with more serious guitar practice.

BandFuse’s user-friendly approach to guitar mastery strikes some chords that Rocksmith misses. The tab-based gameplay is accessible and easy to grasp, which makes shredding through this heavy-hitting batch of tunes an entertaining and educational romp for players of all skill levels. A limited scope of extra bells and whistles, along with sharp difficulty spikes between tiers, is an occasional turnoff, but the rush that comes from improving your playing over time until you can nail these songs note for note smoothes out some of the rough edges.

Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition Review

Where Dungeons & Dragons is concerned, I’ve always been old-school. I got into the game as a child at the end of the 1970s, during the Gygaxian glory days when the big game was still Advanced and still loaded with more inscrutable numbers than a corporate tax return. That’s how I’ve always liked it. The newfangled rules that supposedly make everything easier with changes like flipping around armor class just make my head hurt. If you can’t understand that -10 is better than 10, I don’t want to know you.

So Baldur’s Gate II is the pinnacle of role-playing games for me. The BioWare epic got almost everything right about the original, unforgiving D&D when it was released back in 2000, and Overhaul Games hits the goblin right on the schnoz in 2013. The developer’s reworking of one of the all-time greats into Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition combines the original Shadows of Amn, the Throne of Bhaal expansion, and a new gladiatorial combat side game into a bursting-at-the-seams package. Even after more than a decade, this sprawling saga remains the most authentic treatment of D&D to ever hit a computer. And it is even better than ever, thanks to numerous graphical tweaks and a pile of new content that shows how much Overhaul has gotten its act together in comparison with the problematic release of the first enhanced Baldur’s Gate game last year.

Memorize spellbooks and light up the dungeons, or your party won’t last long in one of the toughest RPGs ever made.

Not that the original game could ever be said to be in need of more stuff. Completists will put in a good 100 hours with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, while Throne of Bhaal adds another 40 or more. Both games are loaded with memorable (and personable, depending on how much you take to space hamsters and self-righteous druids) non-player characters and party members and challenging tactical combat–not to mention quests that play out like classic pen-and-paper modules and a rogues’ gallery of monsters and villains ranging all the way from mephits and vampires to mind flayers and a spectacularly snotty red dragon. The game hardly needed extras, although the new characters, quests, and gladiatorial games are a good impetus for players who can get a lot of the $20 “enhanced” presentation by loading up free user-made mods with the original game, which can be purchased online for less than $10.

Battles are intricate, tactical affairs where you have to blend careful use of melee fighters with the smart use of mages, clerics, and the like.

The original plot remains impressive, telling the continuing Bhaalspawn saga about the protagonist coming to terms with his or her identity as the offspring of the dead god of murder. Script and story are much more mature than what was presented in the first Baldur’s Gate. Even the main villain, a dead-faced sadistic monster named Jon Irenicus, whom you are first introduced to during torture sessions in his dungeon, is more memorably evil than the previous game’s more prototypical baddie, Sarevok.

Because of the above, plus a more careful design, all of your actions are more directed and more purposeful. Where the first game saw you crawling through every square inch of what seemed to be endless wilderness maps, looking for battles to earn you enough experience points to level up and take on gangs of murderous kobolds and the like, here you accept a quest, go more or less straight to its location, and get right to slaying powerhouse mages, parlaying with demons, challenging vampire clans, and so forth. The ante has been upped across the board, starting with an introductory-level adventure for first-level characters, and moving to a much more challenging foray with experienced heroes who start at level seven and above. You feel this with every monster you kill and every magical item you loot from a corpse.

Baldur’s Gate II is much more of a high-level adventure than its predecessor, complete with high-level adversaries and even visits to other planes.

Coming along with this epic feel is epic difficulty. Baldur’s Gate might be the hardest RPG ever made. Battles are intricate, tactical affairs where you have to blend careful use of melee fighters with the smart use of mages, clerics, and the like. Battle preparation is vital. You should memorize the spellbooks of your characters to see what works best for each possible situation. If you don’t maximize your chances of survival with smart spellcasting, which includes prep work like throwing out some haste and bless spells before even going into fights, you will not survive for long.

In many ways, this is more of a strategy game than an RPG, particularly by today’s standards. Some battles are excruciatingly tough without the use of certain spells. I ran into trouble at various points in the game, and it’s impressive just how many encounters require you to exercise some gray matter instead of whipping out a sword and some magic missiles. I kept beating my head against one early battle with a group of Hulk-like golems who activated as soon as I swiped the magic items that they were protecting. After 30 minutes or so of getting beaten into a fine red goo, I realized that I could use something as basic as a cleric’s sanctuary spell to put up a cloaking field, then wander in, steal everything, and slink on out without being spotted by these murderous guardians.

All that said, sometimes the game goes too far. The difficulty is artificially ramped up, and the game’s reach exceeds its grasp in some aspects of the design. Dungeon levels consist of far too many tiny corridors that present daunting challenges to your party of six adventurers. Pathfinding remains abysmal, so characters frequently perform Keystone Kops routines where they walk into one another and turn around. These guys take the long way around far too often. I can’t recall how many battles I stumbled into, went to my go-to mage to soften up baddies with a little summoning or fireballing…and then realized that she was wandering through a chamber all the way on the other side of the crypt or cavern.

The game’s reach exceeds its grasp in some aspects of the design.

Things that haven’t been enhanced? Too-narrow dungeon corridors and the horrific pathfinding.

Even worse, the game design often relies on the small size of the dungeons to make battles harder. You frequently walk into a tiny room and get gooned by foes right on the doorstep. This little trick typically results in the back-line heroes in your party formation (almost always your vital spellcasters) being unable to get through the logjam. As a result, they can’t get involved in the battle, even to fire off arrows or cast those oh-so-necessary spells. Even your fighters up front don’t fare well here, since they can’t move. They wind up sandwiched between the enemies in front of them and their useless allies behind them. Say hello to an old-fashioned beatdown. The only way to deal with these battles, and many others that begin on more of a level playing field, is to lose first and then use that experience to figure out what spells need to be cast, before loading a save and going into that battle again.

New party member Nexxat comes with an interesting backstory. But she’s as evil as it gets, so good guys will have a tough time getting much out of her bloodthirsty predilections.

New content doesn’t add all that much to the original games. It is nice to have, although the fit isn’t perfect. The four added adventurers (including the three introduced in last year’s Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and a fourth brand-new one) add some variety to your parties, but there are some oddities. Their dialogue often seems out of place. They come off a little too modern (sex jokes do not work well in a game this buttoned-down) and self-referential in comparison with the original characters, who played things mostly straight and serious. The most unimpressive additions, however, are the crashes to desktop, which are common enough to frustrate.

Hexxat, the lone all-new character, has an intriguing backstory and can be of use in battles, but she’s inaccessible to good parties due to her evil alignment. (Good luck trying to justify keeping her around in a party led by a paladin.) Her romance option is same-sex-only, which makes her off-limits for any male protagonist who wants to knock some boots before venturing forth; if you’re porting over a dude from the first Baldur’s Gate, you’re out of luck when it comes to the new romantic content. The combat-heavy new mode of play, The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay, is a worthy sequel to its predecessor, but it doesn’t offer much more than a succession of the same sorts of tactical battles you get in the main games, only there you also get the benefit of great storytelling and more involving quests.

Despite all of the above, I have to admit that I am probably most fond of Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition because of nostalgia. Not that this is entirely a bad thing. As much as I’ve gotten used to modern, hold-your-hand RPGs like Mass Effect 3, there is something to be said for this take-no-prisoners blast from the past, especially if you love old-timey D&D as much as I do. And even if you don’t have this particular predilection, you should check the game out anyhow, because an experience as legendary as Baldur’s Gate II is well worth the effort.

Speedball 2 HD Review

Speedball is what you might get if you crossed football, hockey, kickboxing, and street gangs. It’s a brutal sport pitting two teams of hulking meat men against one another. Scoring goals is just as valuable as knocking out other players, and true to the game’s name, matches are quick, taking only a few minutes. Yet as breezy as Speedball 2 may seem at first, there is a welcome modicum of depth lurking just beneath the surface.

There are only two objectives to concern yourself with in Speedball 2: pound your opponents to a blood pulp or score incredible goals. And those two intuitive aspirations are handled by a streamlined control scheme without any fluff. Ready to mash heads? Then get to it! When you have the ball, the action button passes it in the direction you’re facing, and when you don’t have possession, the button triggers a slide tackle, which you can use to steadily beat down the other team. Knocking out enemy players is rewarded with just as many points as scoring goals, which is probably why you’re never given the ability to choose which speedballer you control. If you could, it wouldn’t be long before the game turned into a poor man’s brawler. Even so, passing the ball to enemy players before slide-tackling them is not only an acceptable tactic, but one of the best around. It guarantees hits, and if you’re really aggressive, you never even have to try to score. Instead, you can just force opponents to flip through their substitute players, gradually weakening their team.

Medical droids taking to the arena to remove a downed opponent is cause for celebration.

Beyond bashing in heads and shooting for goals, the field is busy with random bits that can confuse enemy players or score you extra points. In front of each goal there’s a bumper providing another obstacle for careless goalkeepers who simply try to swat the ball away. If you’re defending your goal and not paying attention, it’s fairly easy to shoot the ball at the bumper, only to have it come straight back into your goal. Additionally, offensive players can use the bumper to confuse the defense. Each bounce gives two points, so if you have a few moments when no one is opposing you, making a shot at the bumper before shooting for the goal quickly doubles your yield and makes an offensive run more productive.

On the sides of the pitch there are ramps that accelerate the ball in certain directions, but they also act as score multipliers. If you can push the ball through once, you receive a 50 percent boost to all points you score–knockouts, goals, bumper hits–and if you can manage two shots, then you receive double points. If your opponents make it through the ramp, though, then you lose that bonus. In the career mode, if you’re trying to beat a team with better stats, carefully controlling the ramps can halve the total number of goals/knockouts needed to win, meaning that tactical players can make up for physical weaknesses.

Some basic tools to boost your players’ stats are here, but not much else.

Other doodads on the field include portals that can move the ball to the opposite side of the field and stars for each team that can be hit for extra points. Just like the bumpers and the ramps, stars and portals help weaker players balance themselves against superior opponents. As the game progresses, power-ups also appear; these can temporarily paralyze enemy players or give your team shields that protect your players from tackles.

Jumping into the career mode helps you learn the ropes beyond the game’s tutorial, which is sadly buried in the game’s menus. You can set up your own team with your name, but you need to use one of the prebuilt team logos and color schemes. After that, you can manage individual players, transfer in new ones from other teams, and send players to the gym to work out and help boost their stats. At the start of each game, there’s a bar that shows your team’s general strength vs. your opponents. It’s meant to be a loose estimation of who is likely to win based on your team’s formation and stats, but the bar is not always an accurate measure of your potential for success, especially early on.

Winning matches nets you cash over time, which helps you build and refine your team, but after a certain point, most of your players are much stronger than anyone else’s, and games become absurdly easy. While my first few matches had scores that were pretty close, after season three, I would regularly shut out the other teams and score hundreds of points, until I progressed far enough to play in the Intergalactic Cup. It’s a season-end competition that pits you against brutally powerful teams from all over the galaxy. It takes quite a while to build your team up to a point where you can reasonably compete here, but it offers the toughest challenge available without seeking out other human beings.

Before each match you get a chance to see how your team will likely stack up against your opponent.

Outside of the career mode, you have options for quick matches and basic local-only multiplayer. The multiplayer option lets you quickly select a one-off match for you and your friend using preset teams. The other main mode, Custom Cup, helps you set up a large tournament with several people and some computer players. Unfortunately, both of these modes run on the same machine, meaning that without controllers or multiple keyboards (which are both supported), you and a friend have to cram your hands onto a single keyboard, which is not a comfortable experience. Regardless, multiplayer lacks the depth and sense of progression offered by the career mode. While fairly minimal, the career’s team-building mechanics and the promise of tougher opponents do a pretty good job of pushing you forward. Without those elements, local multiplayer is good for quick matches when you and a buddy might be in the mood, but there’s little to keep you invested beyond that.

My experience was sadly marred by several bugs in the menus that kept me adjusting sound levels or controls. After a dozen or so resets, everything seemed like it was working, only to have the game lock up and wipe both my saved team data and my progress. It happened only once, and I played a total of about 12 hours, but it still cost me a good chunk of time.

Speedball 2 is quite a bit deeper than you may initially suspect, and the enjoyable career mode’s sense of progression is enough to keep you pushing onward. Without an online or even a LAN option, though, the bare-bones multiplayer limits the competitive thrills, and you can’t bring in your team from the career mode and pit them against your friends’ teams, which is shame. Instead, Speedball teaches you how to play and sets you loose, but leaves you with only a handful of avenues to explore the possibilities.

The Walking Dead: Season Two Episode 1 – All That Remains Review

It’s hard to imagine learning to trust anyone in the world of The Walking Dead. It’s not just the question of whether or not people are basically decent. It’s the reality that if you put too much pressure on even well-meaning people, sooner or later, most of them are going to break. And the world of The Walking Dead is a constant pressure cooker. But Clementine, the young survivor of the series’ first season, can’t hope to make it in this world on her own, and so she has little choice but to cast her lot in with a new group of people struggling just to live day to day in a land crawling with zombies and ruthless scavengers.

The first episode of the new season, All That Remains, has a few harrowing moments and a gameplay sequence that will make you squirm as you uncomfortably empathize with a suffering character, but the element that made the first season of The Walking Dead so powerful–those quiet, heavy choices in moments of human interaction–is largely absent here. The episode’s focus is clearly on setting up the characters and conflicts that might pay off in later chapters; it serves a narrative purpose, but isn’t especially effective on its own terms.

It’s a new day, but Clementine hasn’t forgotten the past.

Almost immediately, All That Remains reminds us of just how fragile life is after the decline of society. It also reminds us of just how restrictively linear The Walking Dead can sometimes be, for a series that places so much focus on choice. As Clementine, you’re required to make a colossal (if understandable) error in judgment in an early section that ends up having tremendous consequences. Throughout the game, this sense of tension between choice and rigid plot structure surfaces multiple times.

Quick-time event-style action sequences are still a part of the series.

Yes, you make choices in conversations about what to tell characters, how much to reveal or to conceal about your past. But when you’re locked in a garage and told by other characters to wait there until morning, you can’t choose to stay put. Morning will never come unless you bust out of the garage, break into the nearby house, and go dangerously sneaking around. In moments like these, you feel the heavy hand of plot structure making many of Clementine’s decisions for you. The episode also seems confused about just how capable Clementine is. At one point, a character chastises her for not working hard enough to develop some basic survival skills, which makes Clementine seem more vulnerable and imperiled. But later, she seems tremendously self-sufficient, tending to a serious wound on her own.

Much of All That Remains’ time is spent bringing Clementine into contact with a new group of survivors and giving you an opportunity to learn a little bit about these people. Clementine’s arrival sows seeds of tension in the group as some feel a responsibility to help the tough little cookie out while others don’t want the group burdened with another member (who may, some argue, be a spy for another group that threatens their survival). There’s the older guy Pete, who knows how to use a gun and can be gruff and guarded but quickly opens up to Clementine. A bit too quickly to be believed, I thought–the series doesn’t have much time to establish its characters before all hell starts breaking loose, but Pete’s candor felt like it was in the service of plot rather than serving the authentic needs and desires of the character.

Then there’s Carlos, a doctor and fiercely overprotective father, who says that his daughter Sarah is different in some way, and that she can’t handle the harsh realities of the world they live in. Sarah’s a strange one, to be sure. She’s clearly older than Clementine, but she acts much younger; she asks Clementine to seal their friendship with a “pinky swear,” which the world-weary Clementine finds mighty strange. To me, it was almost impossible to believe that the clearly intelligent Sarah would have such an immature disposition at her age, but perhaps more will be revealed in coming episodes to support this characterization.

Characters may remember the things you say, but what impact these decisions will end up having isn’t yet clear.

And it’s this dilemma that makes evaluating this episode quite difficult. It’s clearly not intended to stand on its own in the long term, and the characterizations it establishes may work better when more pieces fall into place. But All That Remains tries to cover a lot of expository ground, and characterization suffers as a result. Still, subtle voice work and facial details–a glance, a quickly passing frown–give us insight into Clementine’s mindset, and because we have the benefit of an entire season spent getting to know her already, her emotions are accessible to us. I’ve grown to care enough about her that I’m more than willing to endure this episode’s shortcomings to see what Telltale has planned down the road.

DUST 514 Review

One AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile costs the United States military around $70,000 each time a drone operator pulls a trigger, which, the army boasts, has happened more than 11,000 times since 2001. It’s this colossal expenditure of resources that drives the gears of the war machine: usage creates demand, and demand creates billions of dollars in revenue. All that money considered, it’s a surprise that the games industry has been so slow on the uptake. While free-to-play mobile games have begun charting the waters of the microtransaction with purchasable boosters and depleting “energy” systems, billion-dollar stalwarts like Call of Duty remain moored to reliable models: compelling gameplay and annual full-price iterations. In this Skinner box factory, intended obsolescence is the name of the game. Then, in steps Icelandic developer CCP, contriving to build a better mousetrap. Dust 514 is the result.

What if an online shooter persisted, receiving patches and features instead of ceding the floor to its next of kin? What if it aspired to build a world beyond menu screens and battle arenas? What if every death had an associated dollar value, a sunk cost in munitions and equipment? Those are the questions Dust posed before its release last May, and they were questions worth asking. But it has become increasingly clear that the game’s answers just won’t do. It has taken some time to feel comfortable making that proclamation, because CCP’s flagship game EVE Online is the poster child for delayed success. EVE survived its inauspicious debut by doggedly improving upon its initial offering. Dust 514 has improved too, reaching version 1.7 just this past week. It’s tempting to wonder if the cure to the game’s ills lies in some such string of coming patch notes, but unfortunately, Dust’s problems are innate.

Dust 514 shares more than just a design ethos with EVE Online; the two games occupy the same server, too. The shooter is intended to complement EVE’s space-faring massively multiplayer role-playing game, where player corporations vie for military and economic supremacy. Players in Dust assume the role of mercenary soldiers, contracted by corporations in EVE to battle over planetary resources. The battles play out as isolated skirmishes, either to control key points on the map or to diminish the other side’s supply of tickets (here, clone reserves). Barring a bit of new phraseology about “virus uploads” or “NULL cannons,” it’s familiar territory for veterans of other first-person shooters, sci-fi or no.

Really, for all the future trappings, Dust’s version of war is fairly of our time. Infantry scurry about, securing objectives and shooting projectiles into one another. Tanks and stationary turrets fire. Vehicles with rear-mounted machine guns roam about, shuttling troops to the front lines. Even the game’s much-ballyhooed orbital strike, in which EVE players are dialed up for a quick extraterrestrial bombardment, isn’t all that different from a good old Hellfire missile in practice. It’s an unimaginative waste of a fanciful premise; in Dust’s futuristic universe, the war machine chugs on.

Life hack.

It’s a familiar sort of dystopian cynicism–death and destruction for the sake of quarterly financial reports and shareholder portfolios–that Dust 514 carries for better and worse. It manifests in the game’s fiction, with wry touches like the polite public announcements cautioning against public suicide. Or the nagging sense that a battle between armies of immortal clones is an exercise in spinning wheels. It’s also visible in the beautiful future weapons that fill the storefront of the game’s virtual marketplace, where the latest variants from Duvolle Laboratories and Kaalakiota Corporation occupy tiled spaces like app store entries–killing tools, the lot of them, all hawked like the year’s hottest holiday item.

The most prominent positions are given to the weapons that can be had with aurum, a currency amassed through real money transactions and the cornerstone of Dust’s monetization scheme. Dust encourages their purchase by implementing a lethargic rate of progression. Skill points accrued in battle can only be used toward boosts of 3 percent here, 0.5 there, never feeling substantive. It’s not exactly that Dust 514 is a pay-to-win game (if only because most players don’t seem to bother with the aurum-only items); it’s that the progression system runs afoul of the parity most shooters work tirelessly to pinpoint. The incremental benefits Dust doles out may not feel immediately rewarding, but months of earned skills and cash eventually do add up to the point where veteran players have quantifiable advantages over newbies. In EVE, such discrepancies can be mitigated with sheer numbers or pluck. Not so in Dust, where teams are capped at 16 players and gameplay is suffocatingly rigid.

It’s an unimaginative waste of a fanciful premise; in Dust’s futuristic universe, the war machine chugs on.

In this universe, it’s best to head into space. Down on the ground, warfare is a lot less inviting.

The gameplay’s more tangible issues are too numerous to recount in full. Battlegrounds are too large for the player count, resulting in long stretches where enemies are nowhere to be found. They’re wastelands of muddy industrial sameness, with no attention to scale or flow. Paths dead-end nonsensically. Ladders and hallways lead to empty rooms devoid of relation to objectives or tactics. Weapon types are tremendously imbalanced. Audio effects sound cheap and have little relevance to the direction or proximity of their source. Dips in the frame rate result in distant enemies frequently looking like they’re moving in stop-motion. The list goes on, but the problems run deeper.

Games like Halo and Call of Duty may be more limited in scope than Dust 514, but they can stave off any existential dread through the excitement and immediacy of their combat. Dust can make no such claims. Its poor gameplay is a taint that spreads upward from the roots, vitiating the lofty aspirations of its other features. Skill and weapon unlocks, ordinarily the cherry on top of a satisfying gaming session, morph into taunting reminders of the grind to come. The experience points, money, and items that signify forward progress become signposts that warn you’re going in circles: kill to get better weapons, to kill better, to get better weapons. All the work CCP puts into crafting a larger dystopian fiction bleeds into the real experience in this fashion: you feel like a cog in a formless machine, working–not playing–in service to obscure overlords and nebulous goals.

Blue glare: Dust 514’s sole attempt at visual artistry.

Dust’s link to EVE was supposed to provide the context for these endless war games. But the bond between the two games remains ill-defined. Corporations, the life blood of EVE, barely receive an introduction in Dust. Ditto for the former game’s vast libraries of lore. Sitting in the cramped mercenary’s quarters, just a few menu clicks away from jumping into battles all across the universe, it’s impossible to get a sense of the vastness of space that makes the massively multiplayer online role-playing game at once so daunting and mysterious. We know that data transmits across the void between EVE and Dust, because a name taken in one cannot be used in the other. But personality never makes the jump.

A few features are cognate. The seeds of Dust’s atrocious tutorial can be recognized in CCP’s decade-long struggle to introduce new players to EVE. The game’s preoccupation with byzantine menus is similarly rooted in EVE’s history. Its player customization system is also translated from EVE’s spaceship-building mechanic. In the shooter, dropsuit “fittings” are assembled from market purchases and salvage, with an eye toward available power and storage space. Yet in EVE, favored ships can often be crafted objects, built lovingly with expectations that they’ll survive for as long as their pilots keep their wits about them. In Dust, death is an inevitability, and with each failure, your inventory softens. Fitting a dropsuit, consequently, begins to feel like assembly-line work. Once a viable setup has been found, it’s just a matter of restocking it as necessary.

Dust 514 is an effective simulation of the economies whirring away within the military industrial complex–a farcical war to perpetuate EVE Online’s inexorable cycles of death and demand. But Dust 514 needs to offer more than emerging markets for players in CCP’s other, better game in order to justify its own existence.

Huntsman: The Orphanage Review

Huntsman: The Orphanage prompts many questions. Who is the huntsman? How did 12 orphans vanish without a trace from a rural Illinois orphanage in 1897? For that matter, where can I pick up that sweet smartphone that talks to the dead and never loses a charge? Huntsman doesn’t answer all of these questions, but some of its chief pleasures lie in rummaging among old suitcases and piles of dusty prosthetics for clues to the answers. When paired with its creepy namesake, it’s a premise that manages to deliver some genuine chills, but it’s not long before its web of creepypasta stories ensnare you more than any sense of dread. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

ShadowShifters, the studio behind the project, created a game that frightens more by ambience than with the jump scares, blood, and violence that define many horror games (and movies) these days. Many of its most effective chills actually spring from the expectation of scares common in horror games that came before it, and indeed, the first tentative steps of the game lead you down a wooded road, past a phone booth, and up to the wrought iron gates of a decaying institution. A casual onlooker could be fooled into thinking you were playing through the start of Outlast.

The huntsman isn’t your everyday Slenderman.

But there’s no blood here, and if there were, it’s had over 100 years to fade away. Perfect opportunities for jump scares present themselves and pass, and even 20 minutes into the game you might still believe that this really is just an abandoned complex in modern Illinois, and that the falling crosses and self-closing doors really do owe their existence to nothing besides the wind. By the time I came across the rare wonder of a chalkboard writing a helpful tutorial by itself, I found myself not so much spooked as grateful for the novelty.

Thank goodness you have the best smartphone in the world at your disposal. Its constant presence puts Huntsman: The Orphanage in the same class as “weaponless” horror games in the vein of Outlast and Amnesia, and most of the time you use it as a flashlight but, alas, with none of the dread that springs from losing battery power. The phone’s existence comes into its own, however, when the voices and images of the 12 missing children come crackling through it, begging you to find their favorite belongings and return them to their graves so their souls can be free of the dreaded huntsman.

The stories told by the portraits are almost always worth listening to.

Sometimes they interrupt you with flashes of video when you get near said items. Sometimes they pop up and tell you stories with clues from their past when you hover the phone over the portraits scattered throughout the orphanage. And in most cases, the excellent voice work for the accompanying stories makes up for some of the limitations of the surrounding visuals. Tales of chopping off hands at the woodpile suggest that these orphans aren’t angelic innocents, and some of them speak with just enough hints of menace that you might balk at placating them with gifts. They don’t even let up on the creepy act after you’ve found their junk and tossed it on their hidden graves.

It’s fitting that the voice work excels over so much of the rest of the experience. (If there’s a drawback to this focus, it’s that you have to stare at their photos the whole time to hear the full narration.) The orphans spill their lines, dropping hints based on their histories, and then you set out to dig in and around the inky-dark ruins of the orphanage to find the relevant items. It’s tougher than it sounds. The relevant items don’t glow or otherwise make their presence known, and since you can’t interact with some of them unless you crouch or lie down, you may not even know you’re looking at one even though you’re staring right at it.

Some of its chief pleasures lie in rummaging among old suitcases and piles of dusty prosthetics.

It’s here that Huntsman’s overused visual assets unexpectedly come in handy. Dozens of copies of the same Dutch painting and black-and-white group photo litter the rooms of the two-story orphanage, and you grow so used to them and the sight of the same books and blue suitcases that anything else stands out in stark contrast. Good thing, too. Huntsman may be a game about exploring, thinking, and listening at heart, but on many occasions, you find the pieces just by dumb luck. It’s sometimes challenging enough with the current design; it might be a nightmare in more detailed environs.

Speaking of nightmares, what of the huntsman? His comparative absence in the review so far may show just how weak of an impression he tends to leave. Oh, he starts out scary enough. You see him first by the light of your phone in the enveloping darkness, with hairy arachnid legs and an upper body that looks like a steampunk dandy sporting a Renaissance plague mask, and his presence is heralded by the sound of what resembles the ticking of a dozen grandfather clocks. Knowing that this fascinating thing awaits somewhere in the dark creates much of the game’s early tension.

Regrettably, it’s a sensation that doesn’t last long. The cacophony of ticking makes him absurdly easy to avoid (particularly when paired with stereo headphones), and once I found him just staring off into space as if ruminating over his poor life choices over the last century. Even when he catches you and sucks you into limbo, the G-rated fade to black might make you wonder if the game’s not simply bugging out if you didn’t know better.

Get used to seeing this painting. A lot.

Once you start to put the children’s items back on their graves, however, the experience changes for the better. The catch is that all their graves lie scattered in a sprawling, overgrown hedge maze, and that’s when you should look forward to playing in the dark with the door closed and your headphones firmly clamped on. You can always hear the tick-tocking of the huntsman, yes, but the design thrives on the realization that any wrong turn might dump you right in front of its face. With enough repetition–there are, after all, 12 children–it’s possible to learn the general layout, but in those early moments, Huntsman: The Orphanage does much to live up to its horror label.

Huntsman: The Orphanage does manage to convey a sense of terror in its quiet moments, but they’re more benign chills than you find in bloodier horror adventures that let you fight back or at least present enemies who do more than engulf you in darkness. Its greatest frights lie in the anticipation that anything could lurk in the darkness, but once you realize that it’s just you and a clockwork Spider-Man, you might find that you’re no longer as afraid of the dark as you once were. And in a horror game? That’s just scary.

Bravely Default Review

Let’s not kid ourselves. While Bravely Default may not officially be part of the Final Fantasy family, it’s only in name that it’s not. From steampunk airships, to Phoenix Down revive potions, to enemies named Cait Sith, Bravely Default has got the unmistakable stamp of Japan’s most recognisable and venerable role-playing game series plastered all over it. And yet, despite the baggage of both expectation and suspicion that accompanies anything associated with said megafranchise, Bravely Default manages to carve out a place for itself amongst the impressive roster of Nintendo 3DS Japanese RPGs.

It says a lot that this game has come not from the hands and talents of Square Enix, but from those of 3D Dot Game Heroes developer Silicon Studio. Things don’t start off well, however. Take away the beautiful art style, and the first few hours provide little we’ve not seen before and little incentive to continue. The story of wholesome hero Tiz Arrior seeking answers to and revenge for the apparently random destruction of his homeland is hardly a new one, and while the near fully voiced handheld RPG demonstrates impressive production values, the ear-splitting pitch of each character’s dialogue is excuse enough to abandon dialogue scenes altogether (or at least mute the volume).

While Bravely Default may not officially be part of the Final Fantasy family, it’s only in name that it’s not.

The hand-drawn images are gorgeous to behold and greatly increase the sense of scale in the world.

Get past those opening sequences, and you’re gifted with a game that gets close to rejuvenating a stagnating formula, expanding and altering ideas that have been detrimentally unyielding for too many years. Silicon Studio has been wise in highlighting which areas to refresh, and given that the game so heavily relies on it, it’s apt that the battle system should be Bravely Default’s greatest asset.

A few additions to the turn-based combat keep Bravely Default from ever becoming predictable. Alongside the normal attack, magic, and item commands sit options to “brave” and “default.” Select brave, and you can unleash up to four moves in a single turn, the risk being that if your enemies are still alive after your assault, you must wait for them to execute the same number of turns until you can act again. Conversely, default allows you to forfeit your current turn in exchange for banking an extra move to use later.

Each member of your four-person team can brave and default independently of each other, allowing some to stay aggressive with all-or-nothing flurries of four moves at a time, while others take a step back and store moves as a safety net in case of trouble down the line. It can be wise, for example, when you’re faced with a formidable enemy, to make sure one character (preferably a healer) stores up moves by defaulting to allow him to restore the entire team to full health if things start getting out of hand.

Take away the beautiful art style, and the first few hours provide little we’ve not seen before and little incentive to continue.

Stats and equipment slots are no different than in your average JRPG, but job classes force you to think about the best combinations.

It’s essential that you master this core dynamic of putting yourself in credit and debt if you harbor any desire whatsoever of making headway once the hand-holding stops. Certain enemies, especially bosses, have been designed to make victory incredibly difficult to achieve without intelligent use of brave/default. In particular, many tougher enemies are in the habit of healing themselves when on the verge of death–the only way to overcome them being to attack multiple times with brave at the right moment. In short: ignore the brave/default system at your peril.

If you are finding things too difficult, you have the option of altering the difficulty when, and as often as, you like. Yes, this means you can tone the challenge down for a single battle, only to go back to normal once you’ve progressed. An adjustable random encounter rate allows further customisation of the difficulty level, letting you do away with nonessential battles altogether or increase them to the point where it feels like you can’t take a step without being assaulted. How interested you are in leveling up your characters determines how you approach random battles.

A robust and diverse job system broadens combat by bestowing each character with a well-defined set of abilities and stats. With 24 to choose from (although unlocking them all is easier said than done), there are a wide variety of combat styles to experiment with and potentially master. Indeed, a lot of the fun comes from testing out different combinations before you settle on a formula (or two) that you feel best suits a team of four. You’re free to swap a character’s job as often as you want, so if a particular mix isn’t working for a certain boss, there’s nothing preventing you from approaching it from a completely different angle until your next attempt. It’s to Bravely Default’s enormous credit that both the job and brave/default systems work so well in tandem.

If you are finding things too difficult, you have the option of altering the difficulty when, and as often as, you like.

The brave/default system lets you launch multiple attacks (or defenses) in a single turn.

It’s a good thing that the core gameplay is so enticing and engrossing, because the story never manages to rid itself of the tedium and convolution of those opening few hours. While the characters, cliched though they are, give off enough charm to make them entertaining (the pantomime-grade villains are especially amusing), the moment-to-moment plot points lack much in the way of intrigue or surprise. Much of the narrative feels like filler designed to lengthen the game rather than elaborate on the story or provide added insight to events or a character’s motivations.

A wide variety of well-crafted side missions are available and act as decent distraction, while an equally wide-ranging number of StreetPass integrations are also worthy of your time. In particular, a minigame akin to something you might find on Facebook has you rebuilding Tiz’s destroyed village of Norende. This is achieved by clicking on buildable portions of a map screen and assigning workers to start construction–the more workers a construction zone has, the faster it will be built (including when your 3DS is in sleep mode). New workers are acquired with every registered StreetPass, allowing you to build faster and farm the reward items completed structures provide. Less welcome is a sleep point system; each spent point lets you freeze time and launch a free attack. One sleep point is gained for every eight hours your 3DS is in standby mode, or you can part with extra real-world cash and purchase points via a microtransaction.

Despite that unwelcome intrusion and the lacklustre storytelling, Bravely Default is one of the finest RPGs Square Enix has been involved with in recent times. While it’s a stretch to call its battle mechanics groundbreaking, they certainly represent a welcome level of innovation that has a palpable effect on the way you approach combat and makes Bravely Default a highly entertaining adventure.

Gomo Review

What would you do to save your friend? That is the question asked in Gomo, where a greedy alien kidnaps your dog and demands that you retrieve a mystical crystal artifact within two hours, or else. What this mysterious red crystal does, I never found out. All I know is that it is imbued with some sort of power. But that doesn’t matter; some extraterrestrial jerk has your dog, and that makes things personal.

The game stars Gomo, a stubby-legged, long-armed sack boy, in a 2D point-and-click adventure that takes him from his small home in the hillside to underground caverns, grassy fields, and even beyond the world itself. You move through the world by solving puzzles as they appear. Puzzles are straightforward and are not difficult to solve. It’s doubtful you will ever remain stumped in Gomo. Most puzzles require you to find an item–usually stored inside Gomo’s sack-like body via a zipper on his back–and combine it with another, such as unlocking a nearby door with a key only a short distance away, or pulling a lever to activate a switch. Most items used to solve puzzles are tossed aside after their usefulness is spent.

The puzzles are uninspired, and several don’t even make logical sense. For example, one puzzle has you shear a sheep to reveal a passcode to a door, while another has a picture which drops a can of herbicide. One puzzle is directly lifted from BioShock’s hacking minigame, and two others are those slide puzzles that bitter people give children on Halloween instead of candy. You can deactivate easy mode in the menu, but all that does is remove the ethereal glow around items when you hover over objects you can interact with, which turns the game into a basic click hunt. The puzzle sequences at the end are just momentary pauses in what is otherwise a simple game. I would say a straightforward game, but Gomo is anything but.

The alien in the introduction sequence gives Gomo a command to find a shiny red crystal in exchange for his dog. But there isn’t much of a clear path, and Gomo just meanders forward, flipping switches and using machines to open doors as he passes. He rides mine carts and uses the crystal (once found) to activate a hamster-powered device; he rides in a hot-air balloon, and, apparently, nukes the future. I’ll admit I’m a little confused by that one.

Some puzzles are uninspired, taking ideas from elsewhere.

The protagonist himself, with misshapen eyes, and who scurries along on stubby legs while using his long arms to lift himself onto steps, is adorable. His hand-drawn world is rife with little details that make each scene interesting, unless you find yourself quickly growing tired of the game’s color palette, which is mostly varying shades of brown. The game is often humorous, tossing in some slapstick comedy as well as throwing in brief pop-culture references. You cannot make the game screen any larger than a small square surrounded by thick black borders, though that is perhaps a remnant of its history as a flash game. Beyond that complaint, Gomo the game isn’t all that bad; it’s just not very compelling.

The game is a short ride, and can easily be finished in a sitting. I cleared it in less than an hour and a half. You have the choice to play through it again and hunt down special pieces of paper that unlock three bonus minigames, but it wouldn’t be worth your time. They are basically Whac-A-Mole games except that you wallop the dognapping alien instead of rodents. Gomo is a short, stylistic adventure that has some interesting features, but ultimately its brevity and lack of challenge keep its charms from being lasting ones.