TxK Review

Reinventing an arcade classic presents unique challenges that few developers can rise to. Finding a balance between the spirit of the original and the lessons of modern game design is a tricky task that often results in disappointment. But TxK is a masterful example of doing it right. Though it is technically only a sequel to Atari’s Tempest in spirit, this Vita shooter sports the same vector-style visuals, the same tube-based gameplay, and even the same yellow player ship as the 1981 original, all refined into a stunning modern interpretation.

The extent to which TxK is Tempest on steroids cannot be understated, because its mastermind, Jeff Minter, was responsible for Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar. TxK takes everything great from T2K and amplifies it, delivering an adrenaline-heavy arcade experience that stays remarkably close to its classic roots.

“Eat electric death” makes more sense than some of the other phrases TxK throws at you.

If you’ve somehow avoided Tempest over the last few decades, its basics are simple: Your ship sits at the top of a plane (traditionally cone-like, though TxK also features flattened, curved, and jagged shapes), with enemies coming up to get you from below. You want to destroy them before they reach you, because they attempt to grab you and pull you down into the abyss from whence they came–unless they simply blow you up first.

At the start of every short level, you are limited to basic movement (left and right along the plane) and shooting, as well as a single smart bomb, dubbed the supertapper (like Tempest’s superzapper), which blows up all enemies onscreen. Holding the L button locks you in place and allows you to “lean” into the lane to your right or left, which can be useful for destroying enemies while simultaneously dodging projectiles. By collecting power-ups that come toward you along with the enemies, you can upgrade your weapon speed, earn an AI drone to fight alongside you, and, perhaps most importantly, gain the ability to jump, allowing you to dodge many would-be fatal enemy encounters. But when the level ends, all those upgrades are gone, and you start from scratch again, with a single smart bomb and little else.

Wait–haven’t we played this before?

When the action ramps up, all of this can become hard to follow. The visuals are beautiful, but busy, mimicking the simple vector graphics of the original Tempest while throwing a lot more psychedelic effects, colors, and general noise onto the screen at once. This includes seemingly unrelated bits of text on occasion, so using a smart bomb might mean the phrase “Eat your vegetables” is thrown in your face for a split second. Why? Who knows. While the quirkiness has some charm, it can be one of TxK’s faults. In later levels especially, there is so much happening at once that the visuals are overwhelming to the point of being disorienting, and it can be frustrating when the screen is so cluttered that you fail to see what kills you when you lose a life. In an effort to ramp up the difficulty, some levels not only twist and fold into each other, but also start twisting and turning as you’re trying to play. With so much happening onscreen, it becomes very easy to lose track of where you are and what direction you’re moving in.

That said, TxK’s difficulty curve is sufficiently gradual, allowing you to improve your skills without even realizing it. You forget just how much easier the first 10 levels are compared to the final 10 until you go back and play them. And you will want to go back sometimes. Unless you’re playing either Pure mode (seeing how far you can get starting at level one) or Survival mode (also starting at level one, but with extra lives and bonus levels disabled), you can freely select any level you’ve unlocked. But TxK takes replaying older levels one clever step further than most arcade games. You don’t save your progress, nor do you simply have the option of starting a new game from the highest level you’ve reached. Instead, anytime you select a level above level one, you begin with the highest score and highest number of lives that you’ve ever had upon reaching that level previously.

…an adrenaline-fueled arcade experience that stays remarkably close to its classic roots.

Why yes. But it’s never been this fun.

For example, say you reach level 40 for the first time, but you get there with only two lives to spare. The game lets you start back at level 40 with two lives anytime you want. However, if you go back earlier in the game and reach level 40 again, this time with a higher score and a total of six lives on hand, you can now always start the game from level 40 with six lives. It’s a smart system, and it provides incentive to replay earlier levels in the hopes of performing better.

The sound is as amazing a mix of old and new as the visuals and design. Catchy techno beats underscore different groups of levels with intriguing vocal sound samples sprinkled throughout, one of which sounds as if it were taken from a news story about old game consoles. Meanwhile, many of the effects you hear as you play sound like they were ripped straight out of other arcade and Atari classics (the jump sound, for instance, might be straight out of Pitfall).

Despite the occasional frustration of visual pollution, all the aspects of TxK come together to make it a wonderful merger of what made an arcade classic fun and what makes modern twitch-based games enthralling. It’s topped off with local and online leaderboards to encourage you to play long after you’ve finished all 100 levels, and the Classic Mode’s clever use of saving your best performance gives that high-score chase a unique twist. TxK is an example of the right way to reimagine and remaster a classic, and it’s easily one of the better digital games in the Vita’s library.

The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

Adolescents have it particularly tough in the zombie apocalypse. Everyone around them is obsessed with survival–which is certainly understandable–but every ounce of a teenager’s instincts is pushing him or her toward goofing off. The psychological toll of burying your most basic desires must be exhausting. Left Behind presents this unique point of view through Ellie, the extraordinary heroine from The Last of Us, and it’s hard to resist laughing along with her when her childlike nature is on full display. Don’t expect this prequel to ignore the dark cloud that hovers ominously overhead, though. By examining Ellie’s plight through the lens of such a bleak existence, we grow ever closer to her, and realize how devastating one’s life in such a world would be.

Riley sneaks into Ellie’s room before the sun rises, pouncing upon her sleeping body while mimicking a hissing neck bite. Obviously terrified that an infected is eating her alive, Ellie tosses Riley to the ground before pulling a knife from beneath her pillow. Jokes aren’t quite as funny when there are monsters lurking. We soon learn that these two best friends had a falling out a month back, and while Ellie is going through training in a military school, Riley has joined the rebel Fireflies. Grievances quickly forgotten, the two risk punishment from their superiors by sneaking into the dangerous city they call home.

There’s a relaxed back-and-forth between Ellie and Riley that’s a marked change from the uneasy chatter that dominated The Last of Us. Ellie is playful and open with Riley, always ready with a quip and eager to experience everything that life has to offer. A few years older than Ellie, Riley soon takes charge, though her direction is subtle. She’s more of an older sister than a guardian. Their destination: an empty mall without any electricity. Or so Ellie thought. When Ellie flicks the power generator, the lights come on, and the two girls are free to explore the shattered remains of what was once a rich and wasteful society.

Watching these two characters interact is heartwarming. As they try on masks in a Halloween shop, their joy is infectious, and I was nodding along with Ellie when she remarked how much junk people used to buy. Such bric-a-brac must be difficult to understand if you live among people who cherish only the bare necessities. Still, Ellie doesn’t turn her nose up at the novelties around her. As you wander through that store, there’s a Magic 8 Ball that looks like a skeleton’s head. Sure, you could shake it just once if you’re in a hurry, or bolt right through the door to the next area, but once I realized that Ellie had a lot of questions in mind, I kept going back to it until she ran out of things to say. Such moments made me happy. To see Ellie in her own element, acting like the kid that she still is, was so real and genuine that I didn’t want to see it end.

By examining Ellie’s plight through the lens of such a bleak existence, we grow ever closer to her, and realize how devastating one’s life in such a world would be.

Much of Left Behind is composed of these playful scenes, but there’s more going on beneath the surface. As you explore the many stores of the mall, Riley and Ellie keep up a running dialogue. Having the emphasis placed on wandering around the desolate environments is a welcome change from the tense combat encounters that dominated the main game. The focus is primarily on getting to know Riley and understanding more of Ellie’s motivations, so it’s a relief not to have their bonding interrupted. You want to know more. You want to find out what caused them to fight, what Riley’s future plans are, and how they’re coping with their depressing reality.

Death is incredibly difficult to bear.

Interspersed between these scenes of Riley and Ellie is a hectic situation that takes place a few years in the future. Here, Ellie has already begun her journey with Joel, although she is by herself during this time. And any thoughts of aimless discovery have been banished. Surrounded by roaming zombies and deadly mercenaries, she must use all of her survival abilities to make it through unscathed.

It’s here that Left Behind more closely resembles the mood that permeated The Last of Us. Ellie lives in a terrible place where every living thing could be considered an enemy. Death is her only companion, always painfully present as she moves slowly through the tattered environments. Going between the lighthearted early days and the foreboding doom years later is so jarring that it’s almost too much to bear. When she’s with Riley, Ellie laughs so loudly that I would hold my breath, scared that a clicker would hear her. Even though no infected were around, I couldn’t forget their terrible wrath. She’s so young, so naive, that she hadn’t yet learned to be cautious at all times. And when you’re alone in the sections without Riley, you feel the weight of the change of the last few years. Now she realizes that death is one loud noise away. I wanted her to stay young forever, ignorant to the threats lurking, while understanding that she needed to grow up fast if she was going to survive. Of course, such different mindsets are impossible, and I was sad to see how quickly her carefree disposition was ripped away.

So I cherished those scenes with Riley and Ellie. When they happen upon a photo booth, they make faces and shriek giddily when their silly mugs are captured. But they can’t print out the pictures. And that goes along with the major theme of Left Behind. We see a brief, happy snapshot from Ellie’s life with Riley, but we can’t take it with us. Her childhood has to come to an end at some point.

Every young girl should learn how to use a Molotov cocktail.

When you’re playing as Ellie alone, there are threats around you. There are no jokes here, nothing to distract you from the dour proceedings. When the first fight erupted against the zombie menace, I recoiled. Extreme violence was the norm in The Last of Us, but after spending so much time in peaceful tranquility in Left Behind, I had forgotten how harsh this world was. And I hated that Ellie had become accustomed to her role so quickly. Though Ellie must kill many times during the course of this three-hour story, it’s always uncomfortable. It’s never accepted that this is just the way things are. It’s to the game’s credit that you’re placed on the defensive in combat. Ellie doesn’t want to fight–she has to–so you reluctantly kill your foes because that’s the only option.

I was sad to see how quickly Ellie’s carefree disposition was ripped away.

Still, it’s disappointing that one section can be completed only when every enemy has been exterminated. As the fight was wearing down, a few zombies were quite a distance away, well out of sight, and yet I could not open the door that stood locked before me. Forcing Ellie to systematically kill everything felt dirty, as if the game were pushing Ellie down a violent path that’s opposed to who she is during the somber cutscenes. Or at least who I wanted her to be.

In many ways, the fights are identical to what The Last of Us offered. The crumbling wasteland of the postapocalypse serves as your battlefield, and you must make smart use of the overturned tables and smashed windows if you’re going to survive the stalking threats. Ellie is quick with a bow and pistol, and can craft smoke bombs, nail bombs, and Molotov cocktails if you need something more explosive. The most important items aren’t traditional weapons at all; rather, they’re bottles and bricks. Ellie has little health, and there aren’t many items scattered about to craft a surplus of medical packs, so you need to stay out of sight. That’s where the bottles and bricks come in. Instead of letting your position be known by firing a gun, you can stun infected and humans by tossing an object at their face and then rushing in to finish them off with a knife. Disturbing? No doubt. But very effective.

Even though there are infected about, clowns are still pretty creepy.

There is one addition to the combat that fundamentally changed how I approached fights. In The Last of Us, zombies and mercenaries never mingled. Here, the mercs may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they’re hunting you. You see, infected don’t like any humans at all, so they’re just as happy to go after a gun-toting soldier as they are a teenage girl. If you toss a bottle toward the armed guards, you can draw the attention of the diseased monsters, and then watch from a safe distance as the two sides fight. I admit that I found pleasure in hearing the mercenaries cry for help when surrounded by infected. They were trying to kill Ellie, after all, so they deserved a violent end. Plus, the mercenaries would undoubtedly kill at least some of the infected, so it made my job much easier once their fight was over.

Left Behind is a hugely successful add-on to The Last of Us. When I played through the main game last year, I had trouble connecting to Joel, because his rough demeanor and questionable choices left a bitter taste in my mouth. So it was a relief that his desperation was nowhere to be found in Left Behind. Instead, the story focuses on love and hope. Seeing how Ellie acts with a peer, a friend, gave me new appreciation for her, and Riley offers another strong character to latch on to. The focus on exploration also lets the well-realized environments breathe, and gives you plenty of time to take in the current state of the world. And when a combat encounter surfaces, it’s so much more impactful considering how rare fights are and the exhausting tension that accompanies each battle. Left Behind is an excellent addition that gives further insight into the chilling world of The Last of Us and its most interesting character.

Jazzpunk Review

The promise of getting deluged by weirdness awaits your every move in Jazzpunk, a cartoony cyberpunk first-person adventure that attempts to shoehorn as many perplexing and hilarious moments as possible into its meager two-hour length. This off-the-wall journey is far from a straight line from start to finish, however, since every retro-futurist setting you explore is riddled with secrets. The many comedic oddities you uncover multiple trips into this goofy indie odyssey worthwhile.

Jazzpunk’s warped version of the special-agent life begins with its silent protagonist, Polyblank, being mailed through customs in a human-shaped suitcase and deposited on the doorstep of a top-secret espionage agency that’s based out of an abandoned subway car. If the brain-warping neon psychedelic intro doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been drugged, the ebb and flow of the many humorous absurdities layered thick throughout the peculiar opening moments certainly will. From there, the wild ride takes a more overt turn toward the bizarre when your director hands you a prescription bottle of mysterious pills to take in order to be “transported” to your first mission. Yeah. That’s all just in the first minute or so.

The surreal missions that follow have you degaussing and smuggling pigeons, extracting mechanical organs from sushi-loving cowboys, cross-dressing for a vacation rendezvous briefcase swap, murdering a bionic pig with a six-string guitar, and even photocopying your backside to gain access to a secret facility. It’s all excessively bizarre, which is a huge part of the fun. You never know what crazy thing you’ll encounter next, and being diligent about investigating every nook and cranny rewards you with a slew of hilarious secrets and gags.

It’s hard not to chuckle a bit when you’re spraying liquid cheese into the mouth of a bespectacled gentleman or beheading pepperoni and cheese zombies with a giant pizza cutter.

Overcoming obstacles in your way and sniffing out the path ahead isn’t particularly challenging, though the often unusual nature of the many tasks you have to complete to progress makes them highly entertaining. Experimenting to see what happens when you interact with an object or trying out some new gizmo you’ve acquired on an unwitting test subject is often rewarding on its own. Like the moment I decided to spray pigeon juice on a hobo, spurring a swarm of the birds to affix themselves to the poor fellow. He stood there, birds flapping away at his face wildly, and informed me that I had to get my own peanut butter. What? Indeed, Jazzpunk’s light puzzle play takes a backseat to its quest to make you laugh.

Humor is the heart of this demented adventure, and it’s hard not to chuckle a bit when you’re spraying liquid cheese into the mouth of a bespectacled gentleman or beheading pepperoni and cheese zombies with a giant pizza cutter. The situations you find yourself in from one moment to the next grow increasingly outrageous as you progress. References to Evil Dead 2, kids’ cereal of the 1980s, old-school video games, and goofy nostalgia for the technology of days gone by are sprinkled in for good measure. It’s a funny game to be sure, and I had more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. Not all of the gags hit the mark, though, and the laugh-worthy mileage you get depends in part on your amusement over scatological wisecracks.

And you thought toasters were just for making toast.

Retro-themed minigames modeled after classics from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras throw added variety into this crazy concoction. They’re entertaining asides that break up the gag-heavy exploration and minor puzzle elements, though Jazzpunk leans on these diversions too heavily at times. It’s fine when earlier minigames pop up as amusing Easter eggs as a reward for your meticulous tinkering and searching. But these interruptions wear thin when the final stretch of the adventure forces you to motor through a gauntlet of rather dull minigames. Sure, the mini-games tie in to the story progression in an amusing way. But by the time you’re playing minigolf and racing gravy boats, it becomes painfully obvious that the substance and humor have waned considerably. It’s an odd shift, considering the overall level of ingenious creativity thrown in elsewhere. The bonus multiplayer mode, Wedding Qake, is one big exception, however. Having a “let’s get married” deathmatch where you “engage” opponents and blast them with champagne corks? Good times.

Even if the humor doesn’t always click and the depth is lacking at moments, Jazzpunk’s stylish presentation and great backing soundtrack set a slick atmosphere and cool vibe that inspire the need to stick around in its peculiar world a bit longer. Unless you’re very diligent in your travels, revisiting past stages undoubtedly reveals additional jokes, secrets, and silly character encounters you missed the first time around.

Quirky humor and an abundance of outrageous antics keep things buoyant through much of the short but flawed journey. Jazzpunk is an enthusiastic attempt to answer the question of just how much weirdness you can possibly cram into a few hours of gaming. In that endeavor, at least, it’s a great achievement.

Loadout Review

My first moments of Loadout could not have been more perfect. Entering a match, I found myself in a circle of players, made up of allies and opponents alike, staring each other down. As a disembodied voice began a five-second countdown, I quickly pieced together what would happen after it reached zero. The gruff, barbaric-looking horde that surrounded me equipped their preferred weapons, and as the timer stopped, there was a split second of deafening silence before the scene erupted in neon lasers, explosions, and showering viscera. This, in a nutshell, is Loadout at its finest, a game of occasional humor, immense violence, and things that go bang.

Loadout is a multiplayer third-person shooter that blends humor and comical, grotesque violence with a cartoony visual style comparative to Team Fortress 2 or Super Monday Night Combat, complete with vibrant graphics and character models with exaggerated features. But calling Loadout a clone sells it short. The game differs from its popular kin with new takes on classic game modes, and it eschews classes and focuses on what makes shooters so enthralling in the first place: the guns. Loadout features a deep weapon-crafting system where modular components are placed, swapped, or upgraded to create powerful firearms. Though the game lacks conventional classes, it lets you craft your own custom loadouts as you desire.

The style is clean and cartoonish, starring characters with large features.

You can strap a sniper barrel and scope to a rifle chassis to create a sniper rifle, and perhaps upgrade the weapon later with a bolt-action magazine. Attaching a scatter barrel to the chassis along with a shell-loading magazine produces a powerful shotgun. Changing a weapon’s payload further deepens customization options. The pyro payload sets enemies on fire, while tesla shocks enemies with electricity that arcs to nearby foes as chain lightning. Swapping the weapon’s payload to health allows you to heal your allies and give them a health boost, if you feel that the medical field is more your calling.

The first weapon I crafted was a rocket launcher I dubbed Fallout, because I’m clever. I found myself growing rather fond of Fallout, and over time I upgraded to a pyro payload, and later attached a quad-barrel to fire four cluster-bomb rockets. The crafting is enthralling, and what started as a vanilla rocket launcher evolved as time went by, built from the ground up as my lovingly crafted personal weapon of mass destruction.

Purchase clothing items and taunts from the in-game store.

Sticking with a weapon build improves it over time. As you take your chosen weapon into battle, experience points are gained for each particular part that makes up the gun–for example, the selected gun sight, barrel, trigger, and ammo type. With enough experience points, you can purchase weapon component upgrades in Loadout’s tech tree. Upgrades escalate the overall effectiveness of the components, such as increasing damage and improving reload times. The tech tree is used to unlock new components for weapons, as well as equipment, including grenade types, a shield, a turret drop, and a disguise option, which lets you play spy.

Finishing a match awards you with experience points and in-game currency called blutes, which are exchanged for new weapon parts and upgrades. Loadout is a free-to-play game, which means real-world money is involved somewhere. Luckily, the game doesn’t charge for weapon parts or upgrades, but it does charge for vanity items like clothing and taunts. There are plenty of items to buy, including masks, glasses, hats, shirts, bling, and much more. Accessories are also unlocked via Daily Prize rewards, which give you a choice among three chests that contain either a small sum of blutes or a clothing item. You have to pay for more weapon and loadout slots beyond those available, but smart item management eliminates the need for them.

Despite its colorful design, Loadout is exceptionally violent. Bullets rip through flesh, degloving limbs and pounding gaping holes into torsos where bones and internal organs are clearly visible. Fire scorches flesh black, ultimately leaving a nearly skinless husk. Shots to the head have a delightful effect, removing most of the head and leaving the brain and bobbling eyes exposed. Viciously taunting your opponents is actively encouraged and often hilarious. You are granted four slots for taunts that, when activated, send your character into a stylized dance paired with an entertaining tune.

Loadout includes a deep weapon-crafting system.

There are many taunts available in the in-game store, including an ’80s dance number, a golf clap, and the invisible horse of Gangnam Style, if you feel it’s relevant enough (it isn’t). The violence and vulgarity can be turned off in the options menu, but I feel that would remove a large part of the game’s personality. Of course, leaving that box unchecked does run you the risk of seeing a character with blurred genitals twerk in the middle of an arena, but that goes with the territory in Loadout.

The game’s available characters are large and boorish, yet display uncanny agility in combat. Double-tapping a movement key sends your character leaping in that direction. Jumping immediately after the leap sends you into a super jump, capable of catapulting you over tall obstacles in the environment. The ease with which you maneuver inspires energetic acrobatic performances, where players fire over their shoulders while flying from flat ground to a high-rising platform and back again. The battles are exciting, and when multiple players enter the fray, things heat up, putting your skills and environmental awareness to the test.

Loadout is a team-focused game that features familiar game modes, some with a welcome twist. Team deathmatch, for example, is called Death Snatch, and plays out somewhat differently than what you expect. In Death Snatch, killing your opponent doesn’t add points to the board. Instead, when enemy players are killed, they leave a vial of glowing blutonium that must be collected for points, and the team that gathers the most vials wins. The mode bears more than a little resemblance to Modern Warfare 3’s Kill Confirmed mode, where players earn a kill only after successfully executing an opponent.

In Blitz, opposing teams rush toward specified control points as they come into play at various locations around the map. The goal is to raise a pair of boxer short to the top of a flagpole while fending off attacks from the opposing team. Among all the modes, I found Blitz to be the most brutal. The fight for a single point gets violently chaotic: a brief moment of calm is suddenly interrupted by incoming grenades, rockets, or other gunfire. The fight for a single point may last minutes as the tug-of-war between opposing factions continues. Some matches I’ve played have had only a few captures due to the length of time it took to acquire each one.

The hammer in Jackhammer can be used as a weapon.

My favorite game mode, however, is Loadout’s variation on classic capture the flag. It is called Jackhammer, and the object is to steal your opponent’s hammer and carry it back to your team’s base. The enormous red hammer can be used as a weapon, quickly turning enemies who foolishly challenge you into a cloud of discharged electricity and red mist. In typical CTF matches, a capture is awarded by a single digit. But in Jackhammer, you gain a large number of points, and killing enemies with the hammer grants a higher score after the capture. Getting even one kill with the hammer may mean the difference between victory and defeat, which means the hammer carrier must either decide on a quick capture or take the risk for a higher score advantage.

The maps in Loadout are not particularly well designed. Most lack memorable landmarks, making pathfinding a confusing ordeal. The game often chooses maps ill-suited to the selected game mode. Playing Jackhammer on Shattered is straight and to the point: your team spawns on one end, while the enemy is on the far opposite end. But in modes such as Death Snatch, where you are dropped on the enormous map, which covered in high ridges and large obstacles, finding your way around is a hassle.

Loadout is a game of occasional humor, immense violence, and things that go bang.

Since its launch, Loadout has suffered from unrelenting issues with capricious servers. I began playing Loadout soon after it entered the market, and since then I have downloaded many patches and hotfixes as the developer has been hard at work to keep the game stable. The efforts seem to be bearing fruit. I’ve encountered the dreaded server crash only once since I started playing, and it occurred eight hours into my play time; things were up and running again minutes later.

Server lag did rear its head, but it was rare, which is good news. The bad news, on the other hand, is that due to the game’s prior instability, the developer has temporarily shut down the so-called Competitive Mode, where a game type called Annihilation resides. Another issue is something that didn’t strike me until some hours in. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the customization options, from weaponry to character creation. However, in this, the game’s pivotal selling feature, there is still vast room for expansion.

Work as a team to complete objectives.

There is an unfortunate lack of weapon skins, with the default military green as the only option. Character creation is another area that needs attention. Currently, there are only three character models to choose from. While you can customize the characters if you desire a unique look, doing so takes either a lot of time, with clothing items coming in slowly from Daily Prize chests, or real-world money. But not all players are willing to shell out actual currency so their character can sport gangster pants or a mullet. Thankfully, the developer has recently revealed plans for weapon skins, as well as new character models. The release time for either, however, is still anyone’s guess.

Loadout stands out against other shooters with its humor, entertaining multiplayer modes, and addictive weapon-crafting system. I imagine that the game may experience a life cycle not unlike my trusty rocket launcher. It’s crude and blunt, and its name may not turn many heads, but underneath its blood-soaked surface lies immense potential. It is also free-to-play, so there’s no reason not to leap in and bask in the chaotic frenzy with your personally crafted weapon in hand.

Outlast Review

Outlast isn’t really a game of skill, and as it turns out, that makes sense. You’re not a cop or a soldier or a genetically enhanced superhero. You’re just a reporter. And as a reporter, you don’t possess many skills with which you can fend off the hulking brutes, knife-wielding stalkers, and other homicidal maniacs who lurk in the halls of the dilapidated Mount Massive Asylum. You can’t shoot them, or punch them, or rip pipes from the walls to clobber them with. You can only run and hide. You’re always in danger, and when that danger is nipping at your heels and all you can do is flee, desperately hoping to shake off your pursuer, Outlast is a terrifying roller-coaster ride. Unfortunately, the pacing stumbles in a few instances when Outlast stops coasting forward on its own momentum and requires you to go hunting for the track yourself, but these are small setbacks in what is usually a deeply unsettling experience.

Drawn by an anonymous tip, you come to Mount Massive to investigate allegations that an unscrupulous corporation is doing horrible things to mental patients in the pursuit of profits. You move through Mount Massive in first person, and your weighty movements make you feel physically grounded in the environment. And what an environment it is. Mount Massive is supposed to be a place with a long, dark history, and as you make your way through it, you come to believe that it has been home to many horrors over the decades. You can almost feel the damp, moldy air infesting your lungs, and every shadowy room fills you with apprehension, since you never know when someone might be waiting to leap out at you.

There are plenty of effective jump scares in Outlast, but they don’t feel cheap and opportunistic. The atmosphere of Mount Massive is so cohesive and so convincing that the horrors lying in wait for you feel right at home in its pervasive darkness. Luckily, you can penetrate that darkness with your trusty camcorder’s night vision, which lets you see your immediate surroundings but doesn’t make them feel any less terrifying, bathing objects in an artificial green glow and doing nothing to dispel the darkness.

Mount Massive’s crumbling walls and bloodstained floors successfully create the illusion that you’re in a once-functioning facility where unspeakable horrors have occurred, but the path you must take through the asylum is rigidly linear. You might occasionally venture off of your narrow route a bit to find batteries to power your camcorder’s night vision or documents that shed a bit of light on what has taken place at the asylum, but you won’t get far; there’s only ever one way forward, and as you bump up against the game’s restrictive nature, you’re reminded that you’re in a video game after all, one designed to usher you from one terrifying situation to the next.

There’s nothing wrong with that when the situations are effective, and in Outlast, they usually are. You’re hunted through much of Mount Massive by a massive man who doesn’t hesitate to rip your heart right out of your chest if he gets his hands on you. Seeing his silhouette in the darkness ahead or hearing his heavy footfalls somewhere nearby is enough to make your pulse quicken, since you know you have no recourse against him but to flee and to cower. When he does spot you–and he will–you can only run, hoping that you might shake him off by finding a locker to hide in or a bed to slide under. He’s so threatening that in these situations, your own breathing might become as ragged as the shallow breathing of your character.

Hey buddy, can you help me push this object in front of this door? No? You’d rather kill me? OK, carry on then.

But Outlast runs into a bit of a problem. Your encounters with the hulking brute and the other homicidal denizens of Mount Massive are terrifying because your opponents are so lethal and because you can’t defend yourself against them. But when you fail to elude them and meet a grisly demise, and then have to face the same situation a second or third or fourth time, the tension dissipates, as if you’re watching a scene in a horror movie you’ve seen before and you know exactly when the killer is going to strike. When you need to repeat scenarios, Outlast’s gameplay takes on a rote feeling of trial and error; you know that what you did last time didn’t work, so you try something else, until you find an approach that does work.

In the end, though, Outlast’s few weak moments are overshadowed by the effectiveness with which it so often gets inside your head and scares the hell out of you. You sometimes end up feeling like you’re just going through the motions the game requires you to go through, but when the ride is as well designed as this, the best thing to do is just get in and hold on tight.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Galactic Starfighter Review

Star Wars: The Old Republic has been an ever-changing chameleon since its inception, continually trading off features and mechanics with its jump to free-to-play powerhouse and subsequent release of the feature-rich Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion. Even though the focus of each additional chunk of content has shifted, the sentiment remains the same: exploring the Star Wars universe in new and unique ways should make you feel like a badass. Galactic Starfighter endeavors to make you feel just that, strapping you into the cockpit of your very own strike fighter and thrusting you into battle. If running down Sith fighters while engaging your turbo engines in a hail of blaster fire sounds like your idea of a party, this meaty experience is tailor-made for you.

The second full expansion to The Old Republic delivers a flurry of customizable ships, free-flight player-versus-player space combat, and feature upgrades that do an admirable job of fleshing out what Star Wars: The Old Republic wanted to be at launch, but couldn’t quite deliver on. Space combat is an important tenet of the Star Wars universe, and up until now, it has languished as a disappointing and bare-bones minigame that has acted as a plodding grind for experience rather than a fully realized exercise in white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat dogfighting.

Space combat feels as good as it looks.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Galactic Starfighter’s scale is in its 12-versus-12 matches that pit you against other players in one of two different areas: the Kuat Mesas and the Lost Shipyards. The Kuat Mesas map is near the planet itself, with asteroid fields as well as other types of errant debris dotting the numerous canyons and other structures that serve as intriguing landmarks to watch out for. The Lost Shipyards lie out further in space, with enormous space stations that serve as capture points and the perfect bastions for a quick breather in the middle of an intense brawl. Once you enter the group finder and launch a PVP match to become acquainted with the maps, it quickly becomes apparent just how effectively this standalone experience revingorates The Old Republic, which after its only expansion was feeling as though it could be on its last leg.

The edge-of-your-seat doesn’t let up from the moment you round up a group to the moment you (hopefully) emerge victorious. Unfortunately, there’s a rather steep learning curve to what has essentially evolved into a larger-than-life version of what was previously relegated to a pithy minigame. As with any free-range space combat game, the controls can be difficult to nail down until you’ve completed a few different fights. Full 360-degree range of motion make it disorienting at times, especially when you’ve barrel rolled yourself out of the line of sight of an oncoming Sith Strike Fighter.

You can’t own a ship in real life, but you can make this one yours.

When you’ve settled into navigation, mastering weaponry can be a challenge as well. Locking onto a target is a challenge, as it can be difficult to settle on a target that’s zipping around you to and fro. With practice you can guide your fire the way you want, but the initial challenge is something to keep in mind: your first few bouts may be disappointing if you can’t pour much time into easing into the controls. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in space, and you’ll crash and burn if you can’t keep up.

Galactic Starfighter isn’t such a rigid construct that there aren’t different archetypes for players to mold into a ride that’s perfect for them. The gunship, strike fighter, and scout are all formidable choices, and the bomber, a fourth choice, will be available mid-February. Players tend to flock to the strike fighter, which closely resembles the X-wing and Y-wing fighters even Star Wars casuals are likely familiar with. This model strikes a nice mixture of offense and defense, where the maneuverable scout is peppier and fantastic for those who just want to zip in guns blazing and get out of a tight situation fast. The indomitable gunship offers formidable cannons, but it’s the slowest of the trio.

Each ship can be tailored to your play style by way of ship and fleet requisition. Ship requisition is currency earned through using specific ships that can then be converted into fleet requisition, which you can use to purchase new ships. You can spend time upgrading the way your ship looks, but it’s more prudent to augment your passive and active abilities to wipe the floor with the competition. Upgradable components are bundled with talent trees that branch out just like your character’s skills, but if you just want to make your ship look pretty, you can change its paint design, laser colors, and more.

Crew members are another way to keep things fresh, an interesting addition that makes space feel a bit less lonely, even when you’re locked in combat. Companions unlocked in-game can be chosen to head up your very own crew. Additionally, copilots may be selected for special bonuses and abilities that could give you the upper hand when it comes to dealing with players who have invested a bit more time and currency into building the perfect ship. While some augments are available for purchase only through the Cartel Market, there are plenty available to unlock via normal play.

Your companions can always be counted on to keep you on track.

If you took issue previously with your companions spouting the same old lines over and over again after you ran through your class’s storyline, you’ll be delighted to know that new dialogue has been added for each possible character. They can be counted on for some friendly ribbing and lighthearted humor when you’re cruising around, as well as for valuable information about your surroundings. While the new dialogue is hardly a game changer, it’s a refreshing addition that helps tie your space conflicts to the planetside narratives, a helpful touch considering this expansion doesn’t deal in story-based missions.

Space combat looks and feels excellent and never fails to attract competitors, though it’s unfortunate that there is no absorbing story hook to draw you in. That disappointment is balanced by Galactic Starfighter’s ease of access: all levels of players can engage in bouts without having ever completed the storyline or having had a previous character. As long as you’ve got an active account, you can get in on the fun without committing to a guild or even daily play. In essence, this is a standalone experience for Star Wars fans looking for a raucous thrill ride without all the massively multiplayer thrills. The Old Republic has needed this missing piece for some time now, and now that it has arrived, it’s time to be the Jedi or Sith you’ve always wanted to be.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

I don’t often think about killing my friends. Why would I? In everyday circumstances, such a violent act would be inconceivable. However, what if my situation were changed? Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc does away with the normal rules and routines that govern modern societies, and in doing so, is able to examine the desires that hide within everyone. What if the only way you could escape a prison is by killing a friend? Not a pleasant predicament, but one that works remarkably well in a fictional story. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc offers a fascinating look at the human condition, expertly delving into the machinations that would cause some to travel down an immoral path. Sure, killing my friends has never entered my mind, but everyone has a breaking point.

The setup pulled me in from the opening moments. On your first day at a prestigious high school, you’re knocked unconscious, and wake up much later in a deserted classroom. Fifteen teenagers have suffered a similar fate and are now locked inside a heavily fortified building. There is just one way out: kill another student, and avoid having the crime pinned on you. Killing others within a makeshift prison is a concept that has been explored in other pieces of fiction, such as Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and The Hunger Games, and works especially well here because Danganronpa does more than just explore the thoughts of people trapped in such a terrible place. After a murder is committed, you must judge your fellow students, and it’s remarkable how quickly friends become enemies, and bitter truths are revealed.

Junko sure has you figured out.

You assume the role of Makoto, an ordinary teenager in a sea of overachievers. Everyone at the school is considered the ultimate in some aspect: Junko is the ultimate fashionista, Kiyotaka is the ultimate moral compass, and Celestia is the ultimate gambler. Your ultimate ability? Luck. Of course, winning the lottery only to be locked in a death cage hardly seems like good luck.

Danganronpa is focused on telling its story, so though you can move freely throughout the expansive school, your interactions are limited. Converse with a classmate to learn more about his or her backstory, or examine classroom objects to uncover information about the mysterious circumstances that initially brought you to this place. Most of the action entails walking around the school, learning more about the plot and characters. All of the amenities you could ever want are at the school, and make you forget at times that you’re nothing more than a prisoner. Sure, you may never see sunlight again, but you can swim in an Olympic-size pool whenever you want and eat all of the donuts you can fit in your mouth. Life isn’t so bad, is it?

Killing my friends has never entered my mind, but everyone has a breaking point.

Well, it actually is bad. At least for some people. Invariably, someone gets antsy and ends up killing one of his or her friends. And who could blame them? When Monokuma, a robotic bear who’s also the mastermind behind your imprisonment, gives strong incentives to murder, someone is going to take the bait. And it’s these moments that are so interesting. You spend time with these people. You learn who they are and what they want to become. So when a bloodied corpse is found, it’s always unnerving. Someone you’ve grown fond of is no longer alive, and another friend is the perpetrator. How could someone do that? Yes, his or her family’s life was threatened, or maybe a fortune could have been made, but is it really worth committing such a horrific deed to reap that reward?

Although you may never agree with the decisions behind each murder, you can understand them. Danganronpa treats the characters with respect. Rather than paint a suspect as a pure villain, or each person killed as a helpless victim, the game shows how much more complicated things are. The teenagers show a maturity well beyond what their young age would indicate. They’re filled with emotional conflict, often showing a different outward face than who their inner self is, but it never feels contrived. We’ve all been in similar situations, when we put a good spin on a bad situation while desperately wishing to escape, or betraying the trust of someone dear to us for our own gain. So when characters act on their darker impulses, we see them with sympathy rather than disgust.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

Sorry for being vague, but the nature of Danganronpa is such that any concrete details could ruin the intricately constructed plot. The game does a great job of surprising you with new developments without ever relying on twists as a narrative crutch. It’s the slow stream of juicy tidbits that keep you engaged, the small details of a character’s life or the nuggets hinting at why you’re imprisoned. The few twists are taken in stride rather than being colossal revelations that derail everything you knew. Still, some moments that were meant to be shocking left me disenchanted. Danganronpa is all too happy to reveal that a character is really a different gender than you expected, or throw in a tired split-personality quirk, and though none of those gotcha moments are sensationalized, they add little of interest to the well-composed story throughout the rest of the game.

Thankfully, the odd missteps are rare enough so as not to distract from the gripping storytelling. When one of your classmates is murdered, you’re given time to gather evidence before you make your way to the basement where a trial is held. Not only are large chunks of plot details communicated here, but the bulk of the secret truths that all of your friends hide come to light. Actions speak louder than words, after all, so even though a character may have been your closest ally before, you realize in the dark depths of the school what his ore her real motivation was. And, honestly, when you find out someone you liked is really a murderer, it hurts, because you were fooled just as much as the character that you’re controlling.

The trials themselves are fast-paced, electric affairs that demand fast reflexes and sharp decision making. Four different modes within the trials do a great job of keeping things fresh. You may have to shoot truth bullets in an Endless Debate at fraudulent statements, using evidence you learned while searching the crime scene to shed light on a misconstrued idea. There’s no way the victim could have held the sword if you look at her palm, right? And this loose doorknob clearly shows my innocence. Firing your truth bullet at the correct statement has the same giddy appeal as shouting “Objection!” in Phoenix Wright. There’s an excitement in proving that you’re right that is so hard to resist, and it’s only after you show that someone was lying that you start to feel bad. Did you really just turn the spotlight on your friend? And now he or she is facing an execution if convicted?

There are other ways of presenting your evidence as well. Hangman’s Gambit has you spelling out a word by tapping on swirling letters. Granted, this isn’t nearly as exciting as the aforementioned Endless Debate, but it does serve as a fun change of pace from firing truth bullets. There’s also a rhythm game called Bullet Time Battle in which you must wear down one of your friends until they admit the truth they’ve been angrily protecting. Again, it’s fun to present your argument to the beat of the music, but I always felt bad afterward. Going into every trial, I wanted there to be a mistake. Maybe the body wasn’t actually dead? Or the mastermind was behind the death? So when I cornered classmates, forcing them to admit their guilt, it was a victory tinged with sadness.

When you find out someone you liked is really a murderer, it hurts, because you were fooled just as much as the character that you’re controlling.

Trials conclude in a manga-style re-creation of the murderous events. You have to piece together what happened before, during, and after the crime. If you put the pieces in the correct order, Makoto details exactly what took place, and the comic book panels come to life with animations of each act. Seeing your hard work pay off with such a clever revelation is always fascinating. Unfortunately, because the pictures are small, it can be difficult to know what they’re supposed to represent, so it took a bit of trial and error to complete the puzzle. Still, I loved seeing the intricate details spelled out, and making me an active participant helped hammer home what occurred and my importance in solving the case.

Sadly, most of those pictured end up dying.

After you see Danganronpa through to its enticing conclusion, you unlock a new mode called School Life that lets you explore your relationships with your classmates without any messy murder getting in the way. It’s a welcome inclusion because there’s so little time for extracurricular activities during the main story. There are small sections where you can talk to a classmate of your choice before the next killing happens, but students die or get convicted at such a high rate that they’re likely gone before you have a chance to finish the storyline. School Life gives you unfettered access to everyone in the school, so I spent a few hours just filling in the missing pieces to their many backstories.

Still, School Life is lacking. There is a narrative hook in which you must build replacement Monokumas (the bear who’s holding you captive is scared of being destroyed), and the process of doing so is tedious. Taking the form of a light strategy game, this process has you assign tasks to each classmate as you try to find parts for bear construction or clean the messy school. It’s a harmless diversion, but without the dark cloud of the murder plots hanging overhead, it’s hard to care about the by-rote activities.

Thankfully, the core story is so gripping that it doesn’t matter that the ancillary features aren’t up to snuff. Danganronpa excels in nearly every aspect, but two components left a lasting impression on me. First, the respect it shows toward every student, even those who commit the most heinous of crimes, makes you feel sympathy toward everyone, and yearn to understand what makes them tick. Second, the game doesn’t revel in the violence of the deaths and the bleakness of the events. You’re not a voyeur, after all, but one of them. Danganronpa is an excellent adventure with a story that celebrates the human spirit, even during the darkest times, and that optimistic viewpoint made me smile even when everything seemed to be going wrong.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

“If I am a vessel, I am an empty one.”

So says Lightning, aka Claire Farron, aka the heroine of Final Fantasy XIII, and now, the heroine of Lightning Returns. And she’s right. In her newest adventure, Lightning is not interesting in and of herself, but because of what she means to others, and what others mean to her. To Bhunivelze–that is, God–she is the means of readying humanity for the new world soon to be born. To old friend Fang, she is the key to retrieving an artifact that holds untold power. As for Lightning, the only force driving her is her love for her dead-but-not-really sister Serah, and the possibility that they may be reunited–but even that possibility doesn’t stir Lightning’s emotions. Indeed, Lightning is a vessel for holding and pouring plot devices, but little more.

To be fair, Lightning’s stoicism is a story point in Lightning Returns, yet it’s this same stoicism that makes it nigh impossible to connect with her; she has but one personal motivation, and is defined solely by that motivation. In fact, every character in Lightning Returns is defined by the most basic of traits, all of which serve the needs of the plot, rather than the plot flowing from the needs of the characters. How amazing, then, that these characters never stop talking, finding new ways to explain the simple events occurring around them with as many words as possible. For having so little to say, the characters of Lightning Returns sure do talk a lot. You could say the same things about many other Japanese role-playing games, as well as plenty of anime and manga, but I can’t remember the last time I played a game with so much dialogue that went absolutely nowhere.

Cactuars on my shoulder make me happy.

The stage for all of these histrionics is the world of Nova Chrysalia–or, more accurately, four fairly large regions of Nova Chrysalia that you traverse over and over again as you perform the tasks required of you. The world is soon to end, and Lightning is the key to God’s plan for a new beginning. She is the savior, the one who will rescue as many souls as possible in order to guide them to the new world, and Serah is God’s bargaining chip. In turn, returning character Hope Estheim acts as Lightning’s guide in his ark, a base that exists outside of time’s flow, and houses Yggdrasil, the famed tree of life that has become a JRPG mainstay.

Lightning Returns is not a game about Lightning, but about events that unfold with such melodrama and visual panache that you can’t help but gawk at the beautiful spectacle before you. Some of these events have some semblance of sense, while others (such as the arc that explains the ever-annoying Chocolina’s backstory) are absurd fluff, but the “whoa” moments come and go with some degree of reliability, making you wish that they were part of a sophisticated narrative in addition to being sensory delights. In my favorite of the game’s many cutscenes, Lightning dons a gorgeous mauve gown and takes center stage in a theatrical production that make a Cirque du Soleil show look like a flea circus. The music swoons, fireworks and other vibrant flourishes fill the screen, and for a moment, the pageantry sweeps you away in an exuberant gust of sound and light.

Lightning is a vessel for holding and pouring plot devices, but little more.

Lively battle animations give combat some class.

If only there were a stronger character who could readily support the weight of a full game on her shoulders. Lightning’s friends from Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 have roles to play, but their stories are typically self-contained, culminating in final speeches that might represent 180-degree turns of the emotional positions they held just moments before. At least some of the actors deliver their lines with enough gusto to make you believe in their proclaimed passions. Final Fantasy XIII-2’s misunderstood villain Caius Ballad has the most stage presence among them, thanks to actor Liam O’Brien’s resonant baritone, though even Vanille finds redemption now that she no longer must bear the burden of an entire world (rather literally, at that). Elsewhere, Lightning Returns embraces the usual monosyllabic coos and shrill vocal deliveries that characterize Final Fantasy, though this isn’t a matter of acting choices, but rather of inconsistent voice direction.

Sadly, the mediocre audio production is a major distraction. You explore and reexplore the game’s four zones as Lightning, who usually travels alone, with Hope chattering in your ear via transponder so frequently, you wish he’d just shut up. He drones on so often, in fact, that he’s constantly cut off mid-sentence whenever a battle suddenly occurs, when you trigger a cutscene by walking into a new area, or when you engage another character in order to complete quests. In the most extreme examples, Hope cuts off his own dialogue, though even when he isn’t the one providing his own interruptions, lines are constantly shut down mid-sentence, sometimes to be repeated, and sometimes to be forgotten. The game drowns you with unnecessary audio, as if developer Square Enix were fearful that you’d forget what you were doing or why you were doing it.

The great warriors of legend have no need to cover their thighs. Or torsos. Or collarbones. Or cleavage.

You might think you could simply wait for dialogue to finish before venturing forward or engaging other characters, and in theory, you can. However, Lightning Returns is designed to make you hurry. You see, the world is going to end whether you like it or not, and the clock is always ticking. The game adheres to a strict timetable, automatically returning you to the ark at 6 a.m. every day. To see Lightning Returns to its finale, you need to add several more days to the calendar by saving the right souls–which in turn means completing story quests. Stopping to listen to entire lines of dialogue uses up precious minutes, so when faced with the decision to do nothing while you listen to Hope ramble or to move on and risk interrupting his exposition, you move on. The countdown is anti-story.

The music swoons, fireworks and other vibrant flourishes fill the screen, and for a moment, the pageantry sweeps you away in an exuberant gust of sound and light.

Not only does the time management mechanic collide with the overzealous audio, but it collides with almost every other aspect of the game. I suspect that like me, many people will discover just how frustrating the flow of time is when they reach the world’s end before they have progressed far enough to have saved its populace. In this circumstance, the game abruptly concludes, and then invites you to start over again with all of your spells, weapons, and so forth intact–a New Game Plus. The moment came as a slap in the face after 33 hours of playing on medium difficulty, and the slaps continued as I played through a second time, during which I could so clearly see all of Lightning Returns’ attempts to pad the gameplay and waste my time. You can mitigate the frustrations by playing on easy, but doing so bandages the wounds without addressing the disease.

How does Lightning Returns waste your time? It does it in how it handles exploration. As you complete certain side quests, others may open up, but you may not know where and when they do so, or even if they will. In that sense, the game invites you to return to regions again and again, seeking out new activities. But the clock is always working against you, and the time you spend exploring previously visited areas may not yield any fruit, making the entire journey a pointless one; even traveling to other regions by train uses up additional time. In that sense, the game punishes exploration by pushing you ever closer to imminent Armageddon. The countdown is anti-exploration.

“Passion Rouge” is this schemata’s default title, but feel free to get as creative as you want with names.

We built this city on dirt and stone.

How else does Lightning Returns waste your time? It does it by forcing you to lose an in-game hour whenever you escape from battle, but not effectively communicating if you have the right tools for major enemies beforehand. You might be well equipped for the creatures in the vicinity, only to discover that you are not powerful enough for the boss that concludes your quest, or the miniboss that stands between you and the next phase of your journey. The combat system itself encourages you to try different approaches, but the clock punishes you for doing so. The countdown is anti-experimentation.

That combat has plenty of bright spots, however, and were it not for some execution issues, it may have even found a place among Final Fantasy’s better battle systems. The paradigm mechanics of the previous games have been reimagined, and Lightning is the only character you directly control. At the heart of battle–and indeed, at the heart of character progression and customization–are combat templates called schemata. Schemata, in turn, are attached to the outfits Lightning wears. She can wear up to three at any time and switch between them at will during battle. Not only do various outfits have their own attributes, but so do the weapons, attacks, and accessories you can equip to them. As you earn new spoils in battle, visit vendors, and complete quests, your options grow, and schemata customization becomes more and more compelling. I enjoyed fine-tuning each schema, giving them descriptive names and maximizing various qualities with ornate shields and impossibly large katanas.

On the battlefield, additional strategic elements come into better focus. For instance, each schema has its own maximum health, but when you take damage in one schema, that damage is reflected in other schemata by the percentage of health you lost, rather than in the actual amount of damage. As a result, it’s best to have the schema with the most health points equipped when the enemy lands its blows. In addition, certain costumes have a particular attack hardcoded into them; in other cases, equipping a given item or casting a particular debuff may change the nature of certain attacks. The inherent freedom of schemata makes them deeply appealing.

The game punishes exploration by pushing you ever closer to imminent Armageddon.

They say that chocobo meat tastes like chicken.

Once combat begins, however, you must face Lightning Returns’ vexing blocking mechanic. Each attack you unleash costs a certain number of ATB (active time battle) points, and the ATB meter replenishes more slowly than you use it up. As a result, you must switch between schemata frequently–a strategic consideration similar to the one paradigms introduced in the other XIII games. It’s the newfound emphasis on staggering that leads to the greatest aggravation on the battlefield. Staggering an enemy typically (but not always) makes it temporarily impotent in battle, and allows you to deliver a lot of damage without opposition. You can stagger enemies by bombarding them with the spells and slashes they are particularly vulnerable to, but precisely blocking their attacks is even more effective. And if you want to avoid grave injuries, it’s sometimes a requirement.

The most obvious problem with blocking is that Lightning Returns, like its predecessors, values visual pageantry over precision. That was fine in the previous XIII games, which required little exactness, but when the camera is swaying about, framing the fluid animations, brilliant explosions, and fearsome monsters, it’s rarely giving you a consistent view of your surroundings. You can click a thumbstick to watch from a better vantage point, but even then, the game’s insistence on forcing beauty on you comes at the expense of granting you a proper perspective. Avoiding damage can require split-second timing, but you can’t block attacks you can’t see. And remember: while you can escape battle, it costs you time, though Lightning Returns does give you some methods to ward off the pain of lost hours, such as the limited skill to slow time to a crawl for a short while and prove yourself a one-woman army.

Adornments are an inadvertent source of comedy. This cap is one of the least amusing options.

Nevertheless, the foes you face while pursuing story quests prove a roadblock the first time through, forcing you to pursue other opportunities and hope that making various citizens’ dreams come true will help extend the clock. You might suppose that grinding for levels would boost your battle effectiveness, but Lightning doesn’t gain levels, and there is no experience to gather. Instead, completing quests, whether they be story quests, side quests, or tasks offered from Chocolina’s minor mission board, rewards you with additional health, additional strength, or other perks, such as an increase in the number of recovery items you can possess. Pursuing Chocolina’s tasks is much the same as level grinding, only instead of fighting to earn experience, you are fighting to reap objects that you can turn in for a small boost to your attributes.

Most missions are of the usual “fetch” or “kill” variety, and have you crisscrossing the desert, weaving through forests, and roaming city streets. Menial tasks like checking the time on a dozen clocks or growing greens to feed to your chocobo mount aren’t absorbing on their own, but they do get you out into the world, where you can complete assignments in any order you choose. And while treading across the same sand dunes and winding paths grows tiring, there are countless details to admire. When I first encountered a trio of miniature moogles roving the woods, chirpily greeting each other and announcing it was their bedtime, I was utterly delighted. I shuddered when I looked closely at a beastly gorgonopsid’s razor-sharp teeth, before vanquishing it with a shimmering bolt of frost. And Lightning herself dons meticulously tailored outfits, with every button polished to a shine, each pair of boots carefully constructed, and each fabric impeccably embroidered.

Is Lightning as dry as the desert? It’s a toss-up.

Those details carry over into garb like the amazon warrior outfit, which covers only the minimum amount of skin, and features a panty line so low that Lightning looks like an extra from a hypersexual Onechanbara game. These outfits speak to the game’s tonal inconsistencies; Lightning’s costumes have always been body-conscious, but they’ve never been overtly provocative, and the sudden spotlight on Lightning’s ladybits run contrary to her aloofness and professed desire to avoid the limelight. If you’d rather giggle than ogle, you can always equip Lightning with an adornment, like a bushy goatee or a feline tail, and then change her clothing colors to a garish puce-and-pea-green combo. Lightning doesn’t smile, so you can’t laugh with her–but at least you can laugh at her.

Games have successfully used timers to evoke a sense of urgency in the past; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask leaps immediately to mind. Yet Majora’s Mask handled its time limits with care, whereas Lightning Returns layers them on top of mechanics that don’t support them. This supposedly final chapter of Nova Chrysalia’s story leaves me befuddled. It’s a collection of ideas and concepts that don’t come together in a coherent way, led by a character who has shown no identifiable growth since her first appearance four years ago. The promising schemata system and grandiose cutscenes are solid pillars from which a great RPG could have been constructed, but Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII falls well short of greatness.

The Lego Movie Videogame Review

The Lego Movie Videogame is the culmination of a surprising series of unlikely events. Based on a successful movie that quite possibly wouldn’t even exist if there weren’t first successful games and toy play sets inspired by similarly endearing movies before it, this newest interactive journey through the world of branded plastic blocks is a satisfying companion piece to its theatrical source material.

If you’ve played previous Lego games, you have a general idea what to expect. The Lego Movie Videogame doesn’t deviate from its successful predecessors’ formula. As always, you must lead a band of merry plastic characters around a vibrant world filled with rudimentary puzzles and enemies who fall to pieces when they meet their demise. Some basic ingenuity allows you to advance to the next set piece with minimal difficulty, and level hubs tie the action-oriented stages together while offering incentive to explore. You collect various doodads and in-game currency, which activate cheats that let you play completed areas the way you like, or unlock a slew of additional characters, and sometimes you get to assemble special vehicles or structures by playing a minigame.

We meet during dark times, Mr. Snowman. I’m Batman!

The same general formula has carried gamers through a variety of Lego adventures in the past, minor tweaks aside, and it is arguably no better or worse with this iteration than it was previously, even if by now it feels less inventive than it once did. The most noteworthy difference is the shortened campaign, which is around half as lengthy and content-rich as something like Lego City Undercover on the Wii U, or even Lego The Lord of the Rings. That’s disappointing to find after previous games did such a good job of dropping you into a pleasingly expansive world, but the positive side to that coin is the general lack of dead weight. Here, you are asked to wander a great deal less, and though a handful of optional tasks are offered in each zone, narrative momentum is the obvious priority.

Some basic ingenuity allows you to advance to the next set piece with minimal difficulty.

As for the story, it’s the same as the one shown in theaters. Emmet, the protagonist, is a forgettable construction worker who finds his whitewashed view of the world made more colorful by a chance encounter with Wyldstyle, a free-spirited adventurer who is convinced Emmet holds the key to saving the world from an evil menace. The movie had a lot of fun with its clever references to pop culture, and the game does too in the most direct manner possible: by including huge chunks of footage from the film. Except for two pivotal scenes that unfold near the end of the movie but are glossed over or cut here–to no ill effect–and occasional moments of incidental dialogue, nearly everything makes an appearance. The central themes are just slightly less apparent, but you still get a cohesive and lively story from start to finish, complete with the best scenes from the most memorable Lego characters.

What Vitruvius can’t see surely can’t hurt him…

Many scenes from the movie lend themselves naturally to a game experience, and that quickly becomes evident here. An introductory stage acquaints you with the basics by walking you through Emmet’s rather mundane day at the construction site. Before long, though, he’s driving a motorcycle along a crowded freeway, and Wyldstyle is making her way along the tops of moving vehicles. These events are almost wholly participatory, making it all feel even more frantic than in the film. Then in a later sequence, the characters flee along the rooftops and battle robots along the way–another pivotal scene at the cinema. Here, it’s just fleshed out a bit more, and there are puzzles to solve. So it goes with much of the game, all without the mix ever feeling unnatural or forced. Visuals during the levels and in the cutscenes complement one another beautifully and are perpetually bright and shiny in all the right places.

Although The Lego Movie has delighted audiences of all ages with its clever writing and inside jokes, the video game version isn’t as universally absorbing. Puzzles are simple enough that children should be able to solve them just through experimenting, but too many of them take a paint-by-numbers approach. You simply search for an obvious piece of the architecture that Emmet can drill, break everything apart until you find glowing points of interest that can be assembled, or look for a point on a distant ledge to grapple. Throw in some mild brawling elements–with no fear of failure, aside from a lower rating upon completion of the stage–and you have the bulk of the game. It can wear thin at times, but that’s not a new problem for the franchise.

Returning wandering felines to their owner is just the cat’s meow!

Elsewhere, more minor concerns also pop up on occasion. Infrequently, it’s possible to get a character stuck on the architecture, unable to move. If you’re playing alone you can easily switch to another character in the party, though, and then break apart your trapped friend. If you’re playing cooperatively the second player can do the same, so at least there’s an easy workaround when necessary. In other cases, you may find yourself controlling a flying character who stops short at arbitrary barriers quite a lot, even though it looks like he should be able to keep flying. None of the issues are persistent enough to serve as a huge inconvenience, but they do warrant a mention.

The Lego Movie Videogame is a faithful take on its source material, with just enough of the film’s content missing to make it worth getting out to the theater, but not so much that the game’s narrative becomes difficult to follow. The added interaction is also welcome and is handled in a manner that keeps the experience approachable and generally refined, even if it isn’t always as creative and varied as you might hope. While not everything is awesome, The Lego Movie Videogame should be just the ticket if you’re ready to spend another 10 to 12 hours in the fantastic world of animated plastic blocks.

Strike Vector Review

Strike Vector is a terrible name. It’s an ugly, meaningless pairing of words, vaguely aggressive and speciously technical. What does it tell about the experience in this multiplayer sci-fi dogfighter? Presumably, things will be struck. Usually walls, as it turns out. Other things will be set into motion and given a direction. Usually you, and usually into walls.

That’s part of the Strike Vector equation,and for the first few hours, the unwieldiness of the interface and controls seems well in step with the asperity of the game’s title. You furrow your brow at the shoddy tutorial, and at the misspellings in the menus. In your first matches, you hurtle from your spawn headlong into nearby obstacles like Wile E. Coyote shot from an Acme cannon. As you’re puzzling over what the Kebs column next to your increasingly negative kill-to-death ratio might mean, a dubious name like Strike Vector is emblematic.

Dogfighting combat is turned on its head by the ability to hover.

Perhaps 1995’s WipEout could have served as a precedent for a title with embedded significance. The old sci-fi racing stalwart used to run advertisements featuring two vacuous youths with nosebleeds. Below a stylized Designers Republic logo that oozed counterculture cred read the caption “A dangerous game.” They used to say that the capitalized “E” stood for the drug ecstasy. Strike Vector has something of that uniquely ’90s sensibility, perhaps owing to the members of WipEout’s now-defunct Studio Liverpool within its ranks. It’s got the same disaffinity for limitations on speed and gravity and the same aficionado appeal. It bears the same muddy industrial patina of the WipEout prototype from the movie Hackers. The old teenage angst even bubbles to the surface here and there; the new development team’s name, Ragequit, sits in the spot reserved for the “Leave Match” button in more…let’s say, “businesslike” shooters.

Strike Vector has no qualms about taking its speedy vector ships and forcing them into cramped quarters.

WYSIWYG: it’s refreshing to not have equipment locked behind an experience system.

Strike Vector’s old-school sensibilities run deeper than a bit of branding. Though it’s a dogfighting game fought between futuristic jets, it’s structured in a manner that should be instantly familiar to Quake veterans. Absent are the unlocks and the tiered bonuses so endemic to the modern shooter scene. Eight weapons greet you when you first visit the game’s armory, and the count remains eight a few hundred games later. The only unlocks earned through play are cosmetic. The arena shooter comparisons gain further credibility when your jet’s Macross-esque hover mode is toggled, and the game becomes a first-person shooter (or a third-person shooter) in a purer sense. Hovering can make you an easier target, but it also inverts the traditional pursuer-chaser dynamic of flight games. Find a bogey on your six, and the options avail themselves. Hit the brakes and have him fly right by? Or maybe dive into a nearby structure and wait in ambush around a corner? It’s a fitting evolution–the trench warfare that preceded the rise of the modern FPS gives way to the trench run from Star Wars.

Strike Vector has no qualms about taking its speedy vector ships and forcing them into cramped quarters. Open air cedes space to massive works of industrial architecture: slums, fortresses, and foundries that tend to come crashing into view when you’re in the throes of desperate evasive maneuvers. It’s a relatively small sampling of maps, but there’s good variety to be had in their aesthetics and layouts, and each is tuned to pitch-perfect gameplay possibility.

Considering the “tutorial” is what new players see first, this ain’t a great way to lead off.

I’m enamored of these stages, more layered and detailed than any flight game fan has a right to expect. They feel like rare artifacts that survived the journey from concept art to execution, chock-full of little protrusions and crannies that make escape both viable and precarious in turn. I find myself getting caught up in my eagerness to explore their depths, taking in the neon signage and the bright paint jobs, becoming inattentive to teammates and enemies as I loaf about. The finer details are hard to appreciate in the heat of combat, you see–the flips and loops that combat necessitates make these environments disorienting, even if it’s in the best possible way. It’s a savvy combination of form and function, a design that shifts from artwork to obstacle to pathway with nary a seam in between.

There’s no leading crosshair, and it’s difficult to tell what effect–if any–your shots are having when you score that elusive hit marker.

Strike Vector’s combat is a delightfully grungy spectacle in its own right. It’s most reminiscent of Warhawk’s aerial combat, all floating power-ups and high contrast. There’s a metal-on-metal crunchiness to the sight of ships coming apart under fire. A splatter of oil and flaming detritus makes for gratification that’s often tantalizingly delayed, the reward for a dogged chase or a crafty bit of strafing during a head-to-head shootout between hovering vectors. In a rather mischievous touch, if you’re shot down, you’re granted a few seconds to direct your flaming ship into an enemy for a spiteful kill. It’s all eminently .gif-able.

The vectors are also worth a look when they’re not exploding. They’re bulky mechs, more Transformer than Gundam. The whole of their backsides are given to engines, an overkill of thrusters that do a wonderful job of conveying…well, conveyance. Their forms can be nominally customized, though Armored Core fans should look elsewhere for their gearhead fix; Strike Vector’s garage feels incomplete. That’s the other side of the coin, the roughness that oxidizes Strike Vector’s machined finish. There are little impurities, like the aforementioned menu misspellings, or the odd game crash, and there are larger oversights that give the impression of a game put under live loads before it had time to harden. There’s no real tutorial to speak of, for example, just a few vague slides to click through and a solo flight mode to learn the ropes. I’d recommend spending a fair bit of time with the latter.

Perhaps the ability to suspend flight necessitated these finely detailed environments.

What else is missing? A tactile sense, really–a feeling of connection between player and game that bypasses all the little mechanical and electrical intermediaries. There are a lot of barriers: the dubious ability of mouse and keyboard to simulate acrobatic flight, for one. The inputs have never struck me as an ideal control system for aircraft simulation, but Strike Vector’s half-baked controller support makes them the only practical option. The crosshairs used for targeting also initiate turns–they need to be moved to the edges of the screen to do so–meaning that during pursuit, you’re stuck juggling your ability to attack or steer. If you manage to draw a bead on your enemy, you might find it tough to gauge your weapon’s efficacy. There’s no leading crosshair, and it’s difficult to tell what effect–if any–your shots are having when you score that elusive hit marker. Absent the ability to tell whether you’re using the weapons properly, fitting your vector becomes a matter of sticking to the one or two that have proven remotely viable.

Then again, I might be willing to take to the skies without any weapons fastened to my unwieldy ship, to jet around Strike Vector’s impressive environments and let the chips fall where they may. There’s a substantive quality to the game’s core combat and visuals, even if the rest remains somewhat clumsy. Each time you quit the game, an exit splash screen reminds you that future content is free, and the first such drop is promised for February 28. I’ll fill the time until then learning how to stop crashing into the very pretty walls.