Tales from the Borderlands: Episode One – Zer0 Sum

Tales from the Borderlands is brilliant proof that professional fan fiction can be a beautiful thing. The first episode “Zer0 Sum” sets a high entry bar into the series but one that’s fun to surmount. If you come looking for the simmering anxiety of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, you will find none of that here. Instead, you get an adrenaline-fueled circus of frantic smooth-talk and constant motion that is definitively Borderlands from top to bottom. Telltale has masterfully set up a plot that feels like a Borderlands campaign. It moves between plot points with little downtime in between, and with each scene feeling like a rapid uphill sprint. Rarely do conversations exceed five minutes, and the two longest dialogue-focused scenes are tense, high-strung affairs. The sense of urgency hanging over every conversation makes response time for dialogue choices feel shorter, stringing you through negotiations with criminals and attempts to smooth over verbal blunders.

Borderlands games are about shooting and looting. You do both of these in Tales, because nestled within its narrative-based nature you confront several lengthy action sequences. The first episode alone features brutal skirmishes resulting in more than a few exploded heads. While there is no shooting in the traditional Borderlands sense–you won’t run around gunning down Psychos or skags–there are opportunities to operate heavy machinery and fire off a round. These scenarios require fingers always on thumbsticks, chaining together the familiar moving and ducking commands from Telltale’s previous episodic games. So when you’re not moving analogue sticks to dodge-roll away from cleaver-wielding bandits, you’re mashing buttons to break a guard’s neck or bash Psychos in the face. You’re running away, jumping onto moving vehicles, grasping for weapons, and slamming them into an attacker’s face, and dodging bullets. You aren’t given the luxury of mulling decisions for long. Motion is constant, because nothing on Pandora waits for anyone. It’s incredibly satisfying to wrap up a 20-minute vehicle chase with a few explosions and an axe kill or two to a face before moving on. And unlike in Telltale’s other games, when dealing with others, silence is rarely a good option.

Good ol’ Loader Bot.

As in other Telltale games, players have a limited amount of time to select one of four dialogue or action options when dealing with other characters. The way the studio has tweaked its choice system for Tales from the Borderlands adds another layer of depth to an already complex feature. Both Rhys and Fiona are telling their side of a tale and, as a result, provide different (and sometimes conflicting) details about what happened. You get the opportunity to control both of them, offering your own take on the character.

Rhys is a Hyperion employee, and everyone on Pandora hates the company. He’s viewed as another cog in a machine that destroys lives. Other characters have a real beef with Hyperion as well, and these prejudices dictate how they interact with Rhys. As Rhys, you have to choose whether to flaunt that powerful connection or appeal to others by being vulnerable, telling them how the company has screwed you over too. Fiona appears to have little vulnerability other than love for family, but it’s up to you how successful she is as a con artist. You can dissemble to save your skin, but Tales does an amazing job of forcing you to think hard about who to throw under the bus and how badly your actions will bite you in the ass later. The game begins with the pair being interrogated, each asking for their side of a story involving an elaborate con and a lot of money. That’s about all I can say, as the story takes off so quickly that anything else would be a spoiler. The openness with which the two characters are written adds to the player’s responsibility. Because of the openness of choice here–two noted liars spinning their own stories within a narrative path determined by the player–more than ever, this is your story to tell.

The leading man…
…and leading lady.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast in this first episode feels less real than Fiona and Rhys. Vaughn, Rhys’s sidekick, often overshoots “funny” into “annoying.” Villain August doesn’t feel threatening just yet, and Fiona’s sister Sasha tends to ping-pong emotionally. The one exception is the bandit lord Bossanova, who appears only briefly but adds a bright splash of Borderlands-baddie flavor to the whole affair.

You also get to tinker with some technology from the mega-corporation Hyperion. Rhys has an Echo Eye, an implant that allows him to scan objects in exploration sequences for more information. The Eye is used to gather more information about the environment and reveal more objects to click on and interact with. Rhys also gets to build and choose equipment for a Loader Bot, a self-aware piece of machinery that fights for you. You pick his equipment–grenades and a riot shield, for example–and let him loose, occasionally taking control from his perspective to shoot bandits. Other cyborg implants on Rhys allow him to hack systems, uncovering sensitive information pertinent to the plot by snooping his boss’s computer screen or sifting through a stronghold’s security system. It’s a nice, smart touch.

Telltale’s Pandora is beautifully realized. The cel-shaded art works perfectly, and several times during my playthrough I forgot I was looking at a game that wasn’t from Gearbox’s canon. I rode in a lightning-fast car across Pandora’s surface, kicking up sand into a glowing sky and whizzing past brightly-colored billboards and slavering skags. I stood in the pit of a dingy, dusty battle arena, alone in a maze of dazzling debris as fluorescent spotlights beat down on me.

But it’s not just the look, it’s the sound too. Dialogue moves at a fast clip and retains the same dark humor that colors Borderlands. Sometimes jokes are a little cringe-worthy, but the wit is there, along with several well-placed gems. Fiona muttering jibberish and trying to imitate a Psycho, Rhys sweet talking another character and “blowing his mind” by moving him to tears, and a character using a voice-distortion machine to mask his high-pitched squeaky voice all made me audibly giggle-snort. Snark and smarm are ever-present in the tone, but characters don’t sound like they’re trying too hard to be funny. The writing just works, as Telltale nails another pillar of the Borderlands aesthetic.

New “friends.”

I would be remiss not to mention the superb Tales soundtrack, which feels like something pulled right out of a Borderlands score. Jared Emerson-Johnson, who scored both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us for Telltale, has created tracks that make one think of bloody chases across Pandora’s sandy surface and the violent clang of bullets and machetes on steel. During a scene in which Rhys summons a Loader Bot to help take out a group of bandits, the music swells to a pounding half-rock, half-techno frenzy that brought me back to my first firefights in the first Borderlands. Everything about the soundtrack is Borderlands–the tonal ambience inexorably drags you into battles and inspires them to press on.

Telltale and Borderlands are the peanut butter and chocolate of the current gaming landscape, creating a piece that is too rock-solid in its own convictions to be labeled simply as a mashup. It’s hard to even call it professional fan fiction. Tales from the Borderlands is a Borderlands game, but Telltale has opened up Gearbox’s Pandora in a way the original Borderlands games haven’t and can’t as shooters. Through exploration of the little people struggling in the shadows of Vault Hunters, you gain a deeper opportunities to explore the world.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review

In some respects, Smash for Wii U is the same game released on the 3DS two months ago: it has the same characters, same premise, and same reverence for gaming history. The fundamental difference is in the depth of the experience. The Wii U Smash has tighter controls, better action, more options for single- and multiplayer, more remixes of classic Nintendo songs, more stages, more customization, stage builders–the list goes on. The Wii U version is the definitive Smash Bros. experience.

At its most basic level, Smash Bros. is what you’d get if you built a game on the premise of settling the classic question, “I wonder who’d win in a fight: Mario or Link?” You and your opponents choose whichever character you like from Nintendo’s staggering roster of 49 fighters and enter the fray. Damage works in a unique and slightly obtuse way. In stark contrast with most fighting games, you don’t have a limited pool of health that depletes as you take damage. Instead, your health counts upwards, and the more hits you take, the further you’re sent flying when hit again. The goal of any given match is to knock your opponents off the stage and prevent them from safely returning.

This series presents a challenge unique to the Smash Bros. series: recovery. If you are simply knocked from a platform or fall off by accident, it’s usually easy enough to make it back. Every character has at least two jump moves, and almost all of them have an additional emergency technique for covering large distances. Mindlessly knocking around opponents rarely clinches you a victory. Depending upon how well your opponent can predict your movements, it’s entirely possible and often advised to trick adversaries into falling off the stage for an easy knockout. The amazing depth and variety of this system is at the heart of Smash, and its marriage of the ridiculous and the serious, and the casual and the competitive, is what sets it apart from other adversarial games.

The disparity between the portable and console versions of the game is both immediately apparent and stunning, and making the jump to the Wii U version is freeing. On the pint-sized 3DS, some characters are clearly more comfortable to control than others; given the Wii U’s option to use seven different kinds of controllers, most Smash enthusiasts can immediately and competently play as just about anyone. If you struggled to use Mega Man to his fullest potential on the 3DS, you will enjoy the ease with which you can guide him now. Everyone from Samus to Wii Fit Trainer, Villager to Mario, responds with impressive ease.

Each time you select someone with whom you’re unfamiliar, it’s like being given a brand-new toolbox. You won’t know how to use every move immediately, but they all have a purpose. Your role is to learn when and where to use each skill. As with competitive martial arts, much of the match relies on carefully watching your opponent, maintaining your own balance, and being constantly ready to punish a mistake. At every step in the process, you have some degree of control.

That focus on fine control dovetails perfectly with many of Smash Bros.’ new mechanics. Ledge guarding, a staple in Smash 64, Melee, and Brawl, has been removed. This pushes a lot of the combat off the stage, requiring stronger aerial play. While most moves also knock foes farther than they used to, each character generally only has two or three solid “killing moves.” That means that knockouts require substantially more skill to execute cleanly, which in turn, translates into a distinct cut between high-level and low-level players. These changes benefit everyone. Casual players are able to survive much longer than they may be used to, making sure they aren’t left out of the game entirely. Professional-level brawlers still have the skill set necessary to dominate the less experienced, but cheap kills amongst one another are less common. This tight balance helps satisfy every kind of fan, without cheapening the experience for any one group. This philosophy defines Smash Bros. for Wii U.

Everyone from Samus to Wii Fit Trainer, Villager to Mario, responds with impressive ease.

Keeping a competitive game open for the inexperienced, but giving advanced folks the opportunity to spread their wings, is a challenge that requires an enormous number of options and plenty of ways to train and refine skill sets. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is packed with dozens of challenges, training modes and minigames. These modes aren’t pointless additions. Event matches and challenges have you trying new approaches with characters you aren’t used to–often to teach you something you may have never learned otherwise. The Homerun Contest, for example, has you building up damage over ten seconds before knocking it as far as you possibly can. While it seems a bit odd, it actually helps you build a better understanding of how characters react to receiving damage, and how different techniques affect the trajectory at which you can launch enemies. There several specific distance goals, like R.O.B. having to hit the sandbag between 1600 and 1656 feet. To complete the challenge properly, you must develop a deep understanding of which attacks knock the bag too far away to continue your combo.

Event matches are less structured, but they often pit you against unusual or overwhelming odds and force you to adapt in order to progress. In one of the toughest events, you play as Falco and prevent a stream of Mr. Game and Watches from touching down even once on the stage. While you can approach the goal in a few different ways, you quickly discover that aerial attacks are one of Falco’s best choices, as they allowed you to deal with incoming foes more quickly with less downtime between attacks. There are hundreds of these types of skill tests, and they are designed to help you familiarize yourself with as many characters as you’re willing to learn. Even if you don’t end up ever using Falco, the events still give you enough experience with the game’s 49 characters that you know what your foes are capable of, and can then modify your approach accordingly.

If you have an Amiibo, then you’ve got yet another option to practice. Amiibo work like customizable AI opponents: you can change out numerous attacks, manipulate their names and appearance, and “feed” them equipment to make them stronger. For the most part, they grow by battling other people or Amiibo, and allegedly learn and adapt to better handle other people’s playstyles. I’m far from the best Smash player out there, but I’m better than most, and I struggled to deal with max-level Amiibo figures. When I switched from my typically aggressive style to a more defensive one, the Amiibo would respond either by baiting me to attack or by spamming ranged attacks to try and create an opening so that they could punish me. Amiibos aren’t unbeatable, but their attacks do a lot more damage than yours, and a good chunk of their difficulty seems to come from that. If you don’t have friends around and tire of the single-player options, an Amiibo is a great addition for all but the most talented Smash players, even if they are a little pricey.

For most players, the goal of this single-player training is to test your skills against friends, and that’s where Smash Bros. for Wii U excels. Eight-player matches are phenomenal. Turning item drops up to high and cramming eight players into a relatively small space results in the kind of unbridled lunacy I’ve come to love from Smash Bros. If you prefer the action to be a bit more tame, you can still play standard matches with four combatants, and that’s as great as it’s always been. There are quite a few new stages in which to slug it out, and more than enough to provide a good variety for just about anyone. The most interesting stages, of course, are those that change dramatically over the course of a match. They force players to keep up with the shift, and as long as you’re not looking for serious competition, it’s always hilarious to watch unwitting folks fall off the stage because they weren’t expecting the bottom of the level to suddenly drop away.

All of these stages are wonderfully rendered and keep multiplayer matches from losing their luster even after countless hours.

In that vein, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Kalos Pokemon League, and Mushroom Kingdom U are standouts. They all have new stage hazards like flaming pillars, or a pool that makes your fighter metallic, or a guy that tries to stuff you in a sack and jump off the level, resulting in an instant death. All of these stages are wonderfully rendered and keep multiplayer matches from losing their luster even after countless hours, though you can always use the Wii U gamepad to create your own levels if you seek even more diversity. There are too many restrictions on size and too few tools available, but drawing ridiculous levels with the touchpad more than makes up for the limitations. Disappointingly, you can’t conduct eight-player matches on custom stages, which is a missed opportunity for even crazier play.

Online multiplayer is an unfortunate stain on an otherwise stellar game. Lag in online Smash Bros. matches is hugely variable. Some online games chug along at a mere five frames or fewer per second or less, rendering the game completely unplayable. Others are almost as smooth as if you were playing locally. Playing with friends with solid Internet connections may help, but even so, there’s no knowing how any given match might perform. Online play is extremely hit-or-miss, with the misses being absolutely maddening.

Poor internet functionality is, thankfully, a blight on an otherwise incredible game. Between the Masterpiece Collections, which are short demos of the classic games that inspired Smash Bros., the many fighters and stages, the deep character customization for fine-tuning your fighters to suit your play style, and the extensive screenshot editing tools, there’s just so much to do. With the Wii U release, Smash Bros. has fully realized its goals. There’s something here for nearly everyone–from young to old, from novice to expert–presented almost without compromise. Super Smash Bros. Wii U invites everyone to join in its undiluted, joyous celebration of the broad community that Nintendo has built over the past forty years.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review

In some respects, Smash for Wii U is the same game released on the 3DS two months ago: it has the same characters, same premise, and same reverence for gaming history. The fundamental difference is in the depth of the experience. The Wii U Smash has tighter controls, better action, more options for single- and multiplayer, more remixes of classic Nintendo songs, more stages, more customization, stage builders–the list goes on. The Wii U version is the definitive Smash Bros. experience.

At its most basic level, Smash Bros. is what you’d get if you built a game on the premise of settling the classic question, “I wonder who’d win in a fight: Mario or Link?” You and your opponents choose whichever character you like from Nintendo’s staggering roster of 49 fighters and enter the fray. Damage works in a unique and slightly obtuse way. In stark contrast with most fighting games, you don’t have a limited pool of health that depletes as you take damage. Instead, your health counts upwards, and the more hits you take, the further you’re sent flying when hit again. The goal of any given match is to knock your opponents off the stage and prevent them from safely returning.

This series presents a challenge unique to the Smash Bros. series: recovery. If you are simply knocked from a platform or fall off by accident, it’s usually easy enough to make it back. Every character has at least two jump moves, and almost all of them have an additional emergency technique for covering large distances. Mindlessly knocking around opponents rarely clinches you a victory. Depending upon how well your opponent can predict your movements, it’s entirely possible and often advised to trick adversaries into falling off the stage for an easy knockout. The amazing depth and variety of this system is at the heart of Smash, and its marriage of the ridiculous and the serious, and the casual and the competitive, is what sets it apart from other adversarial games.

The disparity between the portable and console versions of the game is both immediately apparent and stunning, and making the jump to the Wii U version is freeing. On the pint-sized 3DS, some characters are clearly more comfortable to control than others; given the Wii U’s option to use seven different kinds of controllers, most Smash enthusiasts can immediately and competently play as just about anyone. If you struggled to use Mega Man to his fullest potential on the 3DS, you will enjoy the ease with which you can guide him now. Everyone from Samus to Wii Fit Trainer, Villager to Mario, responds with impressive ease.

Each time you select someone with whom you’re unfamiliar, it’s like being given a brand-new toolbox. You won’t know how to use every move immediately, but they all have a purpose. Your role is to learn when and where to use each skill. As with competitive martial arts, much of the match relies on carefully watching your opponent, maintaining your own balance, and being constantly ready to punish a mistake. At every step in the process, you have some degree of control.

That focus on fine control dovetails perfectly with many of Smash Bros.’ new mechanics. Ledge guarding, a staple in Smash 64, Melee, and Brawl, has been removed. This pushes a lot of the combat off the stage, requiring stronger aerial play. While most moves also knock foes farther than they used to, each character generally only has two or three solid “killing moves.” That means that knockouts require substantially more skill to execute cleanly, which in turn, translates into a distinct cut between high-level and low-level players. These changes benefit everyone. Casual players are able to survive much longer than they may be used to, making sure they aren’t left out of the game entirely. Professional-level brawlers still have the skill set necessary to dominate the less experienced, but cheap kills amongst one another are less common. This tight balance helps satisfy every kind of fan, without cheapening the experience for any one group. This philosophy defines Smash Bros. for Wii U.

Everyone from Samus to Wii Fit Trainer, Villager to Mario, responds with impressive ease.

Keeping a competitive game open for the inexperienced, but giving advanced folks the opportunity to spread their wings, is a challenge that requires an enormous number of options and plenty of ways to train and refine skill sets. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is packed with dozens of challenges, training modes and minigames. These modes aren’t pointless additions. Event matches and challenges have you trying new approaches with characters you aren’t used to–often to teach you something you may have never learned otherwise. The Homerun Contest, for example, has you building up damage over ten seconds before knocking it as far as you possibly can. While it seems a bit odd, it actually helps you build a better understanding of how characters react to receiving damage, and how different techniques affect the trajectory at which you can launch enemies. There several specific distance goals, like R.O.B. having to hit the sandbag between 1600 and 1656 feet. To complete the challenge properly, you must develop a deep understanding of which attacks knock the bag too far away to continue your combo.

Event matches are less structured, but they often pit you against unusual or overwhelming odds and force you to adapt in order to progress. In one of the toughest events, you play as Falco and prevent a stream of Mr. Game and Watches from touching down even once on the stage. While you can approach the goal in a few different ways, you quickly discover that aerial attacks are one of Falco’s best choices, as they allowed you to deal with incoming foes more quickly with less downtime between attacks. There are hundreds of these types of skill tests, and they are designed to help you familiarize yourself with as many characters as you’re willing to learn. Even if you don’t end up ever using Falco, the events still give you enough experience with the game’s 49 characters that you know what your foes are capable of, and can then modify your approach accordingly.

If you have an Amiibo, then you’ve got yet another option to practice. Amiibo work like customizable AI opponents: you can change out numerous attacks, manipulate their names and appearance, and “feed” them equipment to make them stronger. For the most part, they grow by battling other people or Amiibo, and allegedly learn and adapt to better handle other people’s playstyles. I’m far from the best Smash player out there, but I’m better than most, and I struggled to deal with max-level Amiibo figures. When I switched from my typically aggressive style to a more defensive one, the Amiibo would respond either by baiting me to attack or by spamming ranged attacks to try and create an opening so that they could punish me. Amiibos aren’t unbeatable, but their attacks do a lot more damage than yours, and a good chunk of their difficulty seems to come from that. If you don’t have friends around and tire of the single-player options, an Amiibo is a great addition for all but the most talented Smash players, even if they are a little pricey.

For most players, the goal of this single-player training is to test your skills against friends, and that’s where Smash Bros. for Wii U excels. Eight-player matches are phenomenal. Turning item drops up to high and cramming eight players into a relatively small space results in the kind of unbridled lunacy I’ve come to love from Smash Bros. If you prefer the action to be a bit more tame, you can still play standard matches with four combatants, and that’s as great as it’s always been. There are quite a few new stages in which to slug it out, and more than enough to provide a good variety for just about anyone. The most interesting stages, of course, are those that change dramatically over the course of a match. They force players to keep up with the shift, and as long as you’re not looking for serious competition, it’s always hilarious to watch unwitting folks fall off the stage because they weren’t expecting the bottom of the level to suddenly drop away.

All of these stages are wonderfully rendered and keep multiplayer matches from losing their luster even after countless hours.

In that vein, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Kalos Pokemon League, and Mushroom Kingdom U are standouts. They all have new stage hazards like flaming pillars, or a pool that makes your fighter metallic, or a guy that tries to stuff you in a sack and jump off the level, resulting in an instant death. All of these stages are wonderfully rendered and keep multiplayer matches from losing their luster even after countless hours, though you can always use the Wii U gamepad to create your own levels if you seek even more diversity. There are too many restrictions on size and too few tools available, but drawing ridiculous levels with the touchpad more than makes up for the limitations. Disappointingly, you can’t conduct eight-player matches on custom stages, which is a missed opportunity for even crazier play.

Online multiplayer is an unfortunate stain on an otherwise stellar game. Lag in online Smash Bros. matches is hugely variable. Some online games chug along at a mere five frames or fewer per second or less, rendering the game completely unplayable. Others are almost as smooth as if you were playing locally. Playing with friends with solid Internet connections may help, but even so, there’s no knowing how any given match might perform. Online play is extremely hit-or-miss, with the misses being absolutely maddening.

Poor internet functionality is, thankfully, a blight on an otherwise incredible game. Between the Masterpiece Collections, which are short demos of the classic games that inspired Smash Bros., the many fighters and stages, the deep character customization for fine-tuning your fighters to suit your play style, and the extensive screenshot editing tools, there’s just so much to do. With the Wii U release, Smash Bros. has fully realized its goals. There’s something here for nearly everyone–from young to old, from novice to expert–presented almost without compromise. Super Smash Bros. Wii U invites everyone to join in its undiluted, joyous celebration of the broad community that Nintendo has built over the past forty years.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth Review

It’s creepy, blasphemous, and obsessed with poo. Despite all that, good luck walking away from The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. This remake of the scatological 2012 original from developer Edmund McMillen (best known for Super Meat Boy) doubles down on the dementia with even more surreal power-ups and bizarre enemies. I still don’t know exactly what I’ve been playing for the last six or seven hours non-stop, but I know that I liked it and that I want to go back for more.

Actually, Rebirth is easy to categorize on the surface. The game is a basic roguelike, with tips of the hat to the frenzied combat in Robotron. The feel is decidedly old-school in that the top-down maps are randomly generated and you have to plow through the entire game in one sitting (so don’t die, or you’re going right back to the beginning). If you’ve ever played a classic arcade game, you know the drill. You run around constantly, shoot everything that moves, and grab power-ups. Repeat through each level until you kill the end boss or die and start all over again a little bit older and little bit wiser.

Isaac’s mom isn’t just a religious nutbag, she also needs to rethink the way she cleans up after the family dog.

But that stock description sells the game short. From here, things get strange. Really strange. Instead of the usual warrior elf or whatever, you play a little boy named Isaac. Sound kind of sweet? It isn’t. Isaac is on the run from his mother, who has some kind of prophecy/mental meltdown in the stick-figure opening cinematic and tries to kill her son on the orders of God. Apparently, taking away the kid’s Game Boy and toys isn’t enough for old Jehovah, who insists on mom doing the Abraham thing and sacrificing her son to prove her love. Just before mom bursts into Isaac’s bedroom with a butcher knife, though, he escapes down a hatchway into a creepy basement, and the game is on.

So if you’ve spent time in a cult or have any sort of mother issues, you might want to close your eyes during the intro video. And maybe later on, too. Finishing each level earns the questionable reward of a new cinematic, which always features some horrific nightmare like other kids pooping on Isaac, his mother constantly kicking him away, him falling to his death, and someone handing him a gift box filled with (what else?) poop. The game also continually ventures back into strange Christian references. Isaac seems pulled between good and evil. At times, the game veers toward the Satanic, with various demonic options and power-ups. At other times, it shows an internal struggle as Isaac takes on various doppelganger foes representing deadly sins like sloth and envy. The game always goes out of its way to be unique and maybe make you think that it has a deeper message, even when it almost certainly doesn’t.

It’s creepy, blasphemous, and obsessed with poo. Despite all that, good luck walking away from The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

McMillen really brings the weird when the game gets rolling. Isaac’s health is tracked with hearts (you start with just three, and new ones are few and far between in the game), and his only weapon is his tears, which form into watery bullets. The basement and cave levels below the house are disturbingly filled with big piles of swirly cartoon poop (that comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors) and poop-related monsters like anthropomorphic piles of crap that fling smaller piles of crap at you and all sorts of related creepy crawlies likes flies, spiders, slugs, and so forth, along with demon spawn like animated dead babies (that frequently explode when killed, spraying bloody viscera all over the place). Power-ups are equally loony-tunes. There are hundreds of these goodies in the game, some passive, some active, and all are surreal, blasphemous, or an inventively sick combination of the two. Isaac can pick up the Stigmata power-up and start shooting more powerful bloody tears. The Black Bean causes Isaac to spew toxic fart clouds whenever he is attacked. A Placenta boosts health. The severed heads of various pets provide all kinds of buffs, as do Tarot cards, evil books, and so forth. Cancer gives you — ah, I don’t even know or want to know. It was enough for me to see Isaac shout, “Yay, cancer!” when he picked it up.

At first, it’s hard to know what to think of all this. I alternated between nervous laughter and being sort of grossed out. Then the game took over, and suddenly the idea of whistling poop boss monsters didn’t seem all that crazy. Beyond all the insanity, Rebirth is a fantastic arcade shooter. Combat speed, a variety of enemies, and alternating types of rooms keep you off-kilter just enough so that the game never gets repetitive. One moment, you’re taking on blackened babies in a huge cavern, and the next, you’re dealing with poisonous slugs in a cramped room loaded with obstacles.

Levels also hit you with optional challenges, like rooms that can only be opened with keys, dangerous rooms with toothy doors, shops where you can buy items, special rooms like an arcade where you can play games to try to earn items, and much more. You also have to make tough calls at times. Hmm, I’m down to just one heart. Do I take a chance on battling the end boss in that room up ahead right now? Or do I go back and explore some other chambers I skipped earlier and hope I can avoid enough damage to pick up some hearts? With the threat of permadeath always looming, you have to spend at least a little time thinking about the best ways to move forward.

And just when you think that you’ve discovered all that poo has to offer, along comes a whistling turd to take things even deeper into the toilet.

The visuals are also disturbing in that they blend an innocent, pixelated design more fitting to a cheerful eight-bit console game than something this twisted. The look of the game makes you expect something kid-friendly and G-rated, to the point where I couldn’t quite believe that these graphics were being used to show bloody trails behind a little kid and the exploded remains of evil babies. The audio is almost as catchy as the gameplay, with the most distinctive part of it being the 80s hair metal score that sounds like it was concocted during a collaboration between Cinderella and Iron Maiden.

Come for the brilliantly designed shooter action; stay for the poo. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth may first catch your attention with its insane setting, surreal monsters, and irreverent references to Christianity, but the speedy, varied gameplay and seemingly neverending new features (which include multiple endings and new bosses after you take out mom the first time, so the replay value is nearly infinite) are what keep you coming back for more. And more. And more.

Rollers of the Realm Review

The pinball and role-playing genres aren’t an obvious match, which might explain why Pinball Quest on the NES came and went without inspiring a slew of developers to imitate Tose’s unique eight-bit fusion. A quarter-century later, though, Rollers of the Realm has arrived on the scene with a similar blend. The fresh attempt would be exciting news indeed if only the results weren’t so messy.

You can try your hand at two modes: a campaign and an arena. The former option is the star of the show, telling the story of a thieving young girl who doesn’t have time to worry about ancient legends because she’s too busy scrounging for coins. She arrives in a port and soon runs afoul of the local militia, which is in service to a wicked blacksmith who in turn serves an even less pleasant baron. Separated from her precious pooch, the sassy heroine takes up with a growing number of allies, and together the heroes fight to right various wrongs on their way to an epic showdown with evil.

In a sense, the characters from the story are all playable. This is a pinball game, after all, and the heroes are the balls. They all possess unique traits that you utilize as you knock them around a given table. For example, the gruff knight is larger than the others and can smash through obstacles more swiftly. A mystic woman restores health, a mysterious archer knocks rodents out of his path with projectile shots, a sorceress weaves powerful spells, and so forth. You meet new friends regularly as you advance through the campaign, and you can hire additional allies once you acquire enough gold.

Gold is in distressingly short supply, though, and the junk you can buy with it is underwhelming. A helmet might allow a ball to deal more damage when it collides with an adversary, or some boots might permit faster movement. This is a neat idea except that you mostly have to take the game’s word for it; the impact that any single item has on a corresponding ball is difficult to spot even when you’re looking for it. Since you must outfit each individual hero with increasingly costly accessories, efforts to improve your character mostly amount to busy work.

This is about as busy as the typical table ever gets.

Another problem is that the core physics system doesn’t feel right. Balls don’t seem to have any proper weight to them, the way they do in typical pinball games like Zen Pinball. Instead, they fly around the screen like pigeons on caffeine, destroying obstacles or speeding toward openings along the bottom of the table in a manner that doesn’t feel especially pinball-ish.

The tables are also bland, offering too little variety and too few secrets to be interesting. Many of them contain a hidden treasure, but all you generally have to do is light a few torches on the wall to reveal a key and then bounce the ball against the locked chest to raid its contents. When enemies appear, they wander about briefly before settling into a position that is likely to bounce the ball in a direction you won’t like, but you can hit them a few times and then they disappear. Some foes throw up shields to nullify frontal attacks, but that’s more annoying than anything. You can always come at them from behind, after all.

The above description might make Rollers of the Realm sound easy just by virtue of its simplicity, but that’s not entirely true. Enemy units often can fire projectile shots at your paddles, slowly (or much more quickly in later stages) chipping away at them so that they are considerably less effective. You can sometimes restore those paddles by rolling a ball over a potion or by activating a character’s heal ability, but that’s only possible if you haven’t lost said hero to a bad bounce. If your helpful mystic is gone and you don’t have another medic in the wings, you’ll have to wait until you can fill a mana meter (by smacking against objects positioned around the current table) and revive your favorite friend. Then you can swap her into the battle, provided that you’re able to bring the active ball to a rest against one of the main paddles. Switching one ball for the next quickly gets tiresome even though it takes only a few seconds with a supported controller, and performing the task often enough to safely clear the later stages is downright tedious.

Gold is in distressingly short supply, and the junk you can buy with it is underwhelming.

The game also stumbles where production values are concerned, but not consistently. Character portraits feature unevenly drawn eyes and distorted features, which can’t entirely be explained away even when you remember that they are elsewhere represented by pinballs. The voice actors for some characters–particularly the heroine and the knight–do a great job, while some others fall flat or come across as caricatures. The music is suitably stirring but never memorable, and sound effects are both generic and unlikely to remind you of any pinball table you may have ever heard.

The aforementioned arena mode might easily have offered some additional depth, but instead, it is content to revisit a few familiar tables once you advance far enough in the campaign. They’re no more interesting the second time around than they were the first, unless you are especially anxious to show up any of your friends who may have posted a score to the leaderboards. Your secondary prize for playing in an arena is additional gold that you can then spend in the campaign, but you only get to keep a tiny portion of your earnings, which is just irritating.

One final problem is the possibility that you will be left high and dry right near the end of the campaign. Difficulty progression is uneven throughout the experience, but it’s still not terribly difficult to advance to a late stage. You can easily backtrack to previously completed areas to gain the experience and gold that will allow you to recruit additional team members and outfit them with the best gear. If nothing else, doing so gives you a few extra chances at a tough table. However, you might be tempted to avoid the hassle until an unexpectedly challenging event or two suddenly comes along, at which point you no longer are allowed to retrace your steps.

Not pictured here: the monk whining about his wine.

Like Pinball Quest before it, Rollers of the Realm is good enough at what it does to prove that a pinball and RPG mashup has potential. This isn’t the game to live up to that promise, however. Its flaws are too numerous, and its strengths seldom manage to work in concert. The end result is more disappointing than it is entertaining, which is a real pity if it means another 25-year delay before someone takes the next crack at doing the concept justice.

Speakeasy Review

Speakeasy is a fighting game based on a cross-country underground fisticuffs tournament in the time of Prohibition, populated entirely by Al Hirschfeld caricatures of actual notable figures from the era, where the winner gets access to the last barrels of legitimate hooch in America to do with what they will.

I am so, so sorry that I had to tell you that. I’m sorry because that is the only accurate description that one can give to the game, and because the description probably put a beautiful picture in your head of a wild, cel-shaded fracas, scored by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin, of super moves involving Tommy guns, of the typically meaningless fighting game timer counting down to government raids, of flapper girls milling about in backgrounds, of final bosses living in Great Gatsby opulence, and of being able to replay great matches in the style of silent pictures. I apologize because I am going to have to sweep all those wonderful ideas away and tell you what Speakeasy actually is: a glorified game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

I apologize because Speakeasy is, quite simply, a waste.

The core of Speakeasy’s gameplay is that you pick your character, each character stands on opposite sides of the stage, and upon the word “Fight!” you can either attack using X, block using Square, or fake out your opponent using Circle. Matches are one-hit kills, and in the main gameplay mode, you can only press each button once. If your attack connects, your opponent’s head pops off and you win. If you both try to attack at the same time, there’s an Injustice-style quick-time minigame when the fighters meet in the middle that determines the winner.

These mechanics might have found a reasonable home on mobile platforms, but having it be PS4 exclusive is like using an orbital laser to heat up a Hot Pocket. It’s a game prime for bite-sized bursts of fun while waiting to do something else. There’s the thin trappings of strategy here, where split-second timing to beat your opponent to the punch is key, and having the ability to fake out opponents is a nifty twist, though that’s as far as the game’s strategy really goes, and all it really does is raise the game, in fleeting moments, from being just Rock, Paper, Scissors to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

There’s no meat on Speakeasy’s bones. There is no single-player mode and no online matchmaking, so unless you can find another person to play with, it’s useless as even a fleeting diversion. There are a few different modes allowing you to press each button two or three times instead, a three-person tag mode, and options for tournaments, but this isn’t the kind of game that lends itself to that level of obsession and competition, especially when actual Rock, Paper, Scissors is free, and you can probably reward each other with real-world snacks instead of a pathetic selection of fancy hats for your 100th win.

Poor woman. Bringing an axe to a lightning fight.

Speakeasy being just a simple, ignorable bad game could be accepted, but the fact that it had to drag a fantastic premise down with it is criminal. Every time the character selection screen pops up is a tragedy in motion: The cast of playable characters includes easily recognizable caricatures of Nicolas Tesla, Amelia Earhart, and Charlie Chaplin, but it also aims for appropriate historical deep cuts, like a stern, hatchet-wielding effigy of Carrie Nation. The cast is rounded out by a brickhouse giant, old-style mustachioed boxer and a black jazz trumpeter. It’s a cast of characters that you never see in any fighting game, and the likelihood of it ever happening again is slim. Each character only has about five animations apiece, with no voice acting, each controls identically, and virtually none of the personality you’d assume from seeing these characters on sight is present. It’s basically no different from when old-school gamers had to lay cellophane over TVs to pretend that the bounding lights on their screens were something else. It was silly in the 70s. It’s unthinkable now.

Ultimately, everything about Speakeasy comes down to a leitmotif of “____ is too good for this game.” The PS4 is more powerful than the game deserves. The premise is more than the game needs. The characters are too perfect just to be squandered on punching characters’ heads off. The game was better when it was just Rock, Paper, Scissors. The price is more than the game is worth. And your time is better spent doing something else.

Gaming Deals: Shadow of Mordor for $25 and more

If you can get to a Kmart location, the retailer is currently offering Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for $25. If you can’t, Kmart’s website also has great deals like Watch Dogs for $30, Wolfenstein: The New Order for $25, and The Evil Within for $25. You can find the rest of the deals available on Kmart’s site below, and more in-store deals are detailed on Cheap Ass Gamer.

Below you’ll find the rest of today’s best deals divided by platform:

PlayStation 4

Walmart is offering a $50 gift card with a PS4 or the white PS4 Destiny bundle. You can also Save up to $44 on a PS4 that comes with camera, and choose between a regular PS4 or the white Destiny bundle, one additional game, and your choice of controller: white, black, or blue.

You can get some holiday shopping done early at GameStop, with deals on PlayStation products. You can get a PlayStation TV for $80, a 500GB PlayStation 3 The Last of Us bundle for $250, and other PS3 and PlayStation TV bundles on GameStop’s website. If you prefer ordering from Amazon, the online retailer is now offering the PlayStation TV for the same price.

In Europe only, Sony is holding a PSN sale with up to 60 percent off games like Sniper Elite III, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Thief, InFamous: Second Son, and many more. You can find the full list of discounted games on the PlayStation Blog.

Xbox One

Today’s your last chance to get in on the Tomb Raider-themed Deals with Gold offer. You can grab the Definitive Edition for Xbox One for $20, and if you still only have an Xbox 360 you can grab the normal edition for $10, Tomb Raider: Underworld for $5, and more. You can find the full list of games here.

Save up to $30 on various Xbox One bundles at Walmart.

PC

Green Man Gaming is offering a 25 percent discount on hundreds of game with the code 1MZ9FW-H92JSD-2CT74F. You can use it to buy the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, or preorder Total War: Attila, which we just learned will launch on February 17.

If you create a free account on Green Man Gaming, you’ll also be able to check out its VIP section, which has special offers on Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more.

Humble Bundle is still offering its Humble Jumbo Bundle 3, which includes GRID 2, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, and more. The bundle now also includes GRID, KickBeat Steam Edition, and Half Minute Hero. And if you pay $12 or more, you’ll also get Saints Row IV.

GOG.com is wrapping up its Fall sale, which has over 700 games discounted on its online store.

Wii U

Target will give you a $25 gift card when you buy a 32 GB Nintendo Wii U Deluxe Set with Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land for $300.

3DS

Get a 3DS XL plus one of 13 games for $219 or less at Walmart.

Hardware

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Gaming Deals: Shadow of Mordor for $25 and more

If you can get to a Kmart location, the retailer is currently offering Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for $25. If you can’t, Kmart’s website also has great deals like Watch Dogs for $30, Wolfenstein: The New Order for $25, and The Evil Within for $25. You can find the rest of the deals available on Kmart’s site below, and more in-store deals are detailed on Cheap Ass Gamer.

Below you’ll find the rest of today’s best deals divided by platform:

PlayStation 4

Walmart is offering a $50 gift card with a PS4 or the white PS4 Destiny bundle. You can also Save up to $44 on a PS4 that comes with camera, and choose between a regular PS4 or the white Destiny bundle, one additional game, and your choice of controller: white, black, or blue.

You can get some holiday shopping done early at GameStop, with deals on PlayStation products. You can get a PlayStation TV for $80, a 500GB PlayStation 3 The Last of Us bundle for $250, and other PS3 and PlayStation TV bundles on GameStop’s website. If you prefer ordering from Amazon, the online retailer is now offering the PlayStation TV for the same price.

In Europe only, Sony is holding a PSN sale with up to 60 percent off games like Sniper Elite III, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Thief, InFamous: Second Son, and many more. You can find the full list of discounted games on the PlayStation Blog.

Xbox One

Today’s your last chance to get in on the Tomb Raider-themed Deals with Gold offer. You can grab the Definitive Edition for Xbox One for $20, and if you still only have an Xbox 360 you can grab the normal edition for $10, Tomb Raider: Underworld for $5, and more. You can find the full list of games here.

Save up to $30 on various Xbox One bundles at Walmart.

PC

Green Man Gaming is offering a 25 percent discount on hundreds of game with the code 1MZ9FW-H92JSD-2CT74F. You can use it to buy the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, or preorder Total War: Attila, which we just learned will launch on February 17.

If you create a free account on Green Man Gaming, you’ll also be able to check out its VIP section, which has special offers on Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more.

Humble Bundle is still offering its Humble Jumbo Bundle 3, which includes GRID 2, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, and more. The bundle now also includes GRID, KickBeat Steam Edition, and Half Minute Hero. And if you pay $12 or more, you’ll also get Saints Row IV.

GOG.com is wrapping up its Fall sale, which has over 700 games discounted on its online store.

Wii U

Target will give you a $25 gift card when you buy a 32 GB Nintendo Wii U Deluxe Set with Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land for $300.

3DS

Get a 3DS XL plus one of 13 games for $219 or less at Walmart.

Hardware

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Gaming Deals: Shadow of Mordor for $25 and more

If you can get to a Kmart location, the retailer is currently offering Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for $25. If you can’t, Kmart’s website also has great deals like Watch Dogs for $30, Wolfenstein: The New Order for $25, and The Evil Within for $25. You can find the rest of the deals available on Kmart’s site below, and more in-store deals are detailed on Cheap Ass Gamer.

Below you’ll find the rest of today’s best deals divided by platform:

PlayStation 4

Walmart is offering a $50 gift card with a PS4 or the white PS4 Destiny bundle. You can also Save up to $44 on a PS4 that comes with camera, and choose between a regular PS4 or the white Destiny bundle, one additional game, and your choice of controller: white, black, or blue.

You can get some holiday shopping done early at GameStop, with deals on PlayStation products. You can get a PlayStation TV for $80, a 500GB PlayStation 3 The Last of Us bundle for $250, and other PS3 and PlayStation TV bundles on GameStop’s website. If you prefer ordering from Amazon, the online retailer is now offering the PlayStation TV for the same price.

In Europe only, Sony is holding a PSN sale with up to 60 percent off games like Sniper Elite III, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Thief, InFamous: Second Son, and many more. You can find the full list of discounted games on the PlayStation Blog.

Xbox One

Today’s your last chance to get in on the Tomb Raider-themed Deals with Gold offer. You can grab the Definitive Edition for Xbox One for $20, and if you still only have an Xbox 360 you can grab the normal edition for $10, Tomb Raider: Underworld for $5, and more. You can find the full list of games here.

Save up to $30 on various Xbox One bundles at Walmart.

PC

Green Man Gaming is offering a 25 percent discount on hundreds of game with the code 1MZ9FW-H92JSD-2CT74F. You can use it to buy the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, or preorder Total War: Attila, which we just learned will launch on February 17.

If you create a free account on Green Man Gaming, you’ll also be able to check out its VIP section, which has special offers on Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more.

Humble Bundle is still offering its Humble Jumbo Bundle 3, which includes GRID 2, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, and more. The bundle now also includes GRID, KickBeat Steam Edition, and Half Minute Hero. And if you pay $12 or more, you’ll also get Saints Row IV.

GOG.com is wrapping up its Fall sale, which has over 700 games discounted on its online store.

Wii U

Target will give you a $25 gift card when you buy a 32 GB Nintendo Wii U Deluxe Set with Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land for $300.

3DS

Get a 3DS XL plus one of 13 games for $219 or less at Walmart.

Hardware

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Gaming Deals: Shadow of Mordor for $25 and more

If you can get to a Kmart location, the retailer is currently offering Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for $25. If you can’t, Kmart’s website also has great deals like Watch Dogs for $30, Wolfenstein: The New Order for $25, and The Evil Within for $25. You can find the rest of the deals available on Kmart’s site below, and more in-store deals are detailed on Cheap Ass Gamer.

Below you’ll find the rest of today’s best deals divided by platform:

PlayStation 4

Walmart is offering a $50 gift card with a PS4 or the white PS4 Destiny bundle. You can also Save up to $44 on a PS4 that comes with camera, and choose between a regular PS4 or the white Destiny bundle, one additional game, and your choice of controller: white, black, or blue.

You can get some holiday shopping done early at GameStop, with deals on PlayStation products. You can get a PlayStation TV for $80, a 500GB PlayStation 3 The Last of Us bundle for $250, and other PS3 and PlayStation TV bundles on GameStop’s website. If you prefer ordering from Amazon, the online retailer is now offering the PlayStation TV for the same price.

In Europe only, Sony is holding a PSN sale with up to 60 percent off games like Sniper Elite III, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Thief, InFamous: Second Son, and many more. You can find the full list of discounted games on the PlayStation Blog.

Xbox One

Today’s your last chance to get in on the Tomb Raider-themed Deals with Gold offer. You can grab the Definitive Edition for Xbox One for $20, and if you still only have an Xbox 360 you can grab the normal edition for $10, Tomb Raider: Underworld for $5, and more. You can find the full list of games here.

Save up to $30 on various Xbox One bundles at Walmart.

PC

Green Man Gaming is offering a 25 percent discount on hundreds of game with the code 1MZ9FW-H92JSD-2CT74F. You can use it to buy the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, or preorder Total War: Attila, which we just learned will launch on February 17.

If you create a free account on Green Man Gaming, you’ll also be able to check out its VIP section, which has special offers on Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more.

Humble Bundle is still offering its Humble Jumbo Bundle 3, which includes GRID 2, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, and more. The bundle now also includes GRID, KickBeat Steam Edition, and Half Minute Hero. And if you pay $12 or more, you’ll also get Saints Row IV.

GOG.com is wrapping up its Fall sale, which has over 700 games discounted on its online store.

Wii U

Target will give you a $25 gift card when you buy a 32 GB Nintendo Wii U Deluxe Set with Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land for $300.

3DS

Get a 3DS XL plus one of 13 games for $219 or less at Walmart.

Hardware

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com