Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Review

Fans of old-school platformers have had plenty of choices lately, and WayForward’s Shantae: Half-Genie Hero–the latest in the series that debuted on the Game Boy Color–is yet another great addition to the list. The franchise has received two excellent, intentionally retro-styled adventures on modern platforms, but Half-Genie Hero mixes in modern 3D graphics with its traditional 2D gameplay, which makes for a game that straddles the line between new and old.

The Shantae series always had a distinct, engaging tongue-in-cheek quality to them, and that’s on full display here. Shantae herself is a self-aware caricature of 16-bit icons–she’s moody and snarky and giddy in equal measure and the side characters are all fun in their own way. The plot feels a little thrown together at times, quickly establishing characters and story elements with little explanation. Admittedly, depth of story usually isn’t the main element we look for in a classic side-scroller, but the overall story feels a bit weaker here than it did in Shantae’s previous outings.

In her latest adventure, Shantae is still the Guardian Genie of Scuttle Town, a place that’s constantly overrun with comically inept pirates, and regularly falls victim to crazy magical schemes. The town is once more attacked by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Seven Seas, Risky Boots. It seems Ms. Boots is after a set of Shantae’s uncle’s blueprints for a machine that has the power to protect the entire town–or cause immense destruction.

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The reason this otherwise straightforward story feels disjointed is the relatively non-linear structure of the game. Shantae picks up new abilities by completing numerous mini-missions that pop up around Scuttle Town, and these abilities–usually in the form of transformation dances–enable Shantae to reach new areas within various levels.

It quickly becomes clear that these side-quest-like missions are integral to finishing the main story objectives, creating occasional confusion about what you should focus on at any given moment. There’s no map or real way to keep track of multiple ongoing quests, only an NPC who provides general guidance. But even that doesn’t always help. Some active goals simply can’t be completed until you acquire a specific power by completing one of the aforementioned mini-missions, though it’s a guessing game to determine which one will give you the specific skill you need.

Levels expand beyond the town and into locations like deserts, factories, lush forests, waterfalls, and temples. Each world is chock-full of secrets to find, requiring multiple return trips to discover every last one. This process can get a bit repetitive, especially during the opening hour or two when you’re mostly going back and forth between the same few map areas, but the influx of new abilities helps build momentum over time. Thankfully, a couple quality-of-life options open up later that help expedite the process: you can buy a dance move that allows you to jump straight to the next part of a world, skipping superfluous sections altogether. Once you’ve acquired the target item or ability, you can then instantly warp back to town.

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Generally, Half-Genie Hero is an accessible game, although you will stumble across a few challenging platforming sections. A big part of the gameplay’s appeal comes from Shantae’s eight transformation dances. Turning into a monkey lets her jump much farther and climb walls, while a spider transformation gives her the ability to scurry across ceilings. As an elephant, Shantae can bash breakable blocks, and no item or enemy is safe underwater when she activates her mermaid or crab forms. Of course, Shantae still has her familiar hair-whip attack, and she can use magic to throw fireballs, create lightning, and form special shields.

The variety of powers at your disposal is one of Half-Genie Hero’s strong suits, allowing for a lot of fun experimentation during combat. Like many classic action-platformers, enemies mindlessly move back and forth and attack on sight, with little apparent AI. Similarly, boss battles are entirely pattern-based, but fighting cartoonishly massive enemies is riotously fun–a giant worm, huge mermaid, airships, and other absurd, screen-filling battles await.

So, while some minor structural squabbles hamper Half-Genie Hero’s pace, the overall game remains a delightful experience. The move to sharp graphics makes the game feel modern, yet the series’ old-school charm lives on in the vibrant colors and expressive character animations. And the soundtrack is surprisingly catchy–with hilariously passionate (if minimal) voice work and a great score. It’s easy to get wrapped up in fighting and platforming through Half-Genie Hero, which speaks to the pedigree of the series, and how well it translates to Shantae’s latest adventure.

Stardew Valley Review

On the surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, but there are more adventures awaiting curious players beyond cultivating a rich and bountiful garden. From mining and fishing to making friends and falling in love, Stardew Valley’s Pelican Town is stuffed with rewarding opportunities. As modern day woes give way to pressing matters on the farm and within your newfound community, Stardew Valley’s meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world. It’s a game that tugs at your curiousity as often as it does your heart.

Your journey begins in the field, cleaning up a neglected and rundown farm. Plotting and planning your garden requires care and attention to detail. What fruits and vegetables do you grow? How much room does each plant need? How do you protect your crops from nature’s troublemakers? You learn through practice, and while the basics are easy to grasp, you quickly need to figure out the best way to outfit your budding farm with new tools and equipment.

Upgrades help speed up essential tasks like tilling the earth and watering your plants, but advanced equipment becomes a necessity when the time comes to break down large rocks and stumps that stick out in your garden. The crafting menu also entices you with optional time-saving tools; automated sprinklers that water the crops every morning, artisan equipment to make preserves or beer out of your harvest, and refineries, such as a furnace for turning ore into metal bars. If you want something, you can make it, you just have to scour your environment for the necessary components.

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As your farm improves, you gain the ability to raise livestock. Animals are expensive to buy and maintain, and the barn they live in isn’t cheap either. You start small, with a barn just big enough for a few chickens and ducks. But if you run an efficient and bountiful garden, you can eventually afford to upgrade to a bigger barn and keep hearty livestock like pigs, cows and sheep.

You have to feed your stock every day, which can get expensive, but they will eventually begin to produce eggs, milk and other rewards for all your hard work. Beyond their monetary value, animals are simply endearing to be around. Give them a name and work a little petting time into your routine; before you know it, your commodities have become your friends. Like your crops, the goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

The goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

When your farm is healthy and your equipment set, Stardew Valley opens up and your routine expands: after you water your plants, feed your animals and tidy up in the morning, you get to head out in search of adventure and friendship. There’s a mine north of Pelican Town with a seemingly endless bounty of buried treasure, but also danger. Combat is simple–a plain swipe of a sword will brush back most common monsters–but the dangers you face grow as you delve deeper into the mine, pushing your basic tactics to the limit.

There’s a risk/reward relationship to seeking out valuable treasure, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to defend yourself from procedurally generated creatures the deeper you go. You hit checkpoints–in the form of elevator stops–every few floors, which both encourages you to keep going and to return in the future in search of grander rewards as checkpoints allow you to skip past the mine’s early levels. The precious gems you find can be sold for profit, donated to a museum that will conduct and share research, or simply hoarded in a chest to be fawned over down the road.

When you grow weary of toiling underground, you can also spend time fishing on lakes, streams and coastal beaches. Fishing in Stardew Valley is straightforward–you use one button to reel in a fish and let go when the line is tense–but it gives you a chance to soak in your surroundings and experience the joys of catching a wide array of fish unique to specific seasons and locations. It’s a calming experience at sunset after a long day that gives you a chance to reflect on your progress and daydream about adventures to come.

Stardew Valley constantly encourages you to explore, be it mining, foraging for fruit in the woods, or collecting seashells, and your curiosity is amply rewarded. Every hidden area you find, every train track you follow, leads to new sights and discoveries that add detail and color to the world around you. Yet as fulfilling as farming and exploring are, visiting Pelican Town’s community center pulls you ever deeper into your new life. Like your farm at the beginning of the game, the community center needs a little attention at first: you’re sent out on fetch quests to gather the necessary materials to fuel its reconstruction.

Outside of the community center, the rest of Pelican Town’s inhabitants also need your help. In working together to achieve small goals, you grow to understand your neighbors’ personalities and identify what makes them tick. Some are pursuing their hopes and dreams, while others fight day to day to overcome personal obstacles; others are quirky creatures of habit that round out the community’s overall identity.

Relationships are gauged by a heart meter, and getting to a certain number of hearts results in a cutscene that offer a closer look into your new friends’ lives. Offering gifts and completing tasks from a board in the center of town are easy ways to increase your connections, and slowly but surely you’re allowed in the inner circle of people’s otherwise private lives. You may befriend a father named Kent who’s dealing trauma after years at war. He’s working on his temper and trying to bond with his child after being away from home. The child, whom you meet in hiding in his parent’s basement, is quiet and introverted. But when you put the time in to get to know him, he reveals that he actually doesn’t mind being alone, even though he believes that he’s at odds with his parents. These personal moments are touching, and encourage you to spend more time getting to know the people around you.

And if you decide to enter Pelican Town’s dating scene, don’t be surprised if you end up with butterflies in your stomach. Giving your crush the right gift and seeing the joy on their face makes you genuinely happy, but you have to put yourself out there first. Sure, working with townsfolk in general is a good way to understand the ins and outs of potential suitors, but no amount of preparation diminishes the impact of anxiously delivering a heartfelt gesture. Because you’ve invested so much time and energy into forging relationships, you get nervous when you expose your feelings, regardless of the fact that you’re courting a pixelated crush. Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings: when your date shares his umbrella in the rain, you know he’s the one.

Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings

Romance often buds during community events that take place each season. In spring you’ll attend a dance and try to get someone to be your partner. At the summer luau you’ll have to bring something delicious from your harvest for the community potluck. At each of these events you’ll have time to get to know the people within the community and see them in a different light than usual. Although it’s lovely to see them outside of their usual activities, it’s a shame year after year the comments and actions of the villagers remain the same. Still, you can learn from previous years, adding better food to the potluck and finally earning the affection of your favorite dance partner.

Mastering farming and earning the affection of your special someone in Stardew Valley are fulfilling journeys filled with surprising and rewarding challenges. But when you have those accomplishments under your belt, it’s hard to know where you go from there. Divorce is an option, but if you put a lot of yourself into finding a spouse, dumping them merely to extend your game doesn’t seem like an attractive path. Besides, with your money-making farm, cash isn’t a concern either.

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Ultimately, Stardew Valley’s eventful world is so inviting that you may opt to simply start from scratch and forge a new life. For anyone who played Stardew Valley earlier this year when it launched on PC, the new console ports capture the same magic that made the game special all those months ago, and allows you to play from the comfort of your couch. Controls on console are essentially identical to what you get from the PC version’s controller support. Console versions also get the fully updated version of Stardew Valley, which includes the aforementioned divorce option, new farm maps that focus on different skills, and a handful of new mechanics that add appreciable wrinkles to life on the farm and about town.

The sheer number of things to accomplish in Stardew Valley can keep you interested beyond the original three in-game years you need to reach the end of your story–you may just want to start over rather than continue on. You’ll work quite hard to gather enough money for your first horse, so that you can quickly move to the mines to get a mineral to complete a bundle at the community center. It’s all centered around whatever it is you want to accomplish that day. And that’s truly what makes Stardew Valley such a lovely experience, it encourages you to go out and be the best you can be, in whichever task that brings you the most joy. Stardew Valley motivates naturally, with blissful optimism.

Editor’s note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Stardew Valley. – Oct. 6, 2017, 2:17 PM PT

Space Hulk: Deathwing Review

Games based on licensed properties can sometimes cover up a multitude of sins by remaining close to their source material. Space Hulk: Deathwing is not one of those games. Although this shooter from French developer Streum On Studio boasts the grim atmosphere and brutal combat that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is known for, there are too many problems here for even the most hardcore fan to endure for long. For every impressive set piece and “wow” moment in combat, there are a dozen befuddling rules or mechanics that make you scratch your head in disbelief.

Of all the issues, tedium is the biggest offender. All nine levels of the campaign are slogs where you trudge down one corridor after another, pausing only to incinerate predictable waves of enemies. Beyond a few minor variations, enemy Genestealers come in two forms: ones that rush at you gnashing teeth and slashing claws, and hybrids that shoot at you from a distance with guns, rocket launchers, and psychic blasts. Bigger and tougher baddies are introduced during the campaign–including some bosses capable of shredding squads with ease–but by and large, the tactics you employ at the start of the game will carry you to the end.

On a positive note, battles are often as brutal as you’d expect from a Space Hulk game. There’s real weight to the thud of your weaponry and power armor as you stomp through dark corridors and chambers. Even the thump-thump-thump of the (relatively) lightweight storm bolter, the whir of an assault cannon, and the whoosh of a flamer are exhilarating because you feel like you’re doing real physical damage. Pounding on enemies with melee weapons is even more ferocious, if a bit chaotic and hard to follow, with the medieval-styled swords and hammers that send flurries of blood and flesh into the air.

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Deathwing thankfully nails the look and atmosphere of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s loaded with visual fan service like massive cathedrals, dissected bodies in laboratories, and humans wired into power systems. Everything is just as baroque and bloody as it ought to be, making for one of the most authentic video game interpretations of Warhammer 40,000’s striking aesthetic.

While everything does look great, there’s little room for interactivity. Aside from shooting gas lines into flaming geysers and opening, closing, sealing, and smashing doors, you can’t do much to your surroundings. There are no weapons, no ammo, no health packs, or any other goodies to collect. Objectives never involve anything more than killing lots of Genestealers, taking out a boss alien, blowing something up, or turning something off or on. You just follow the orders leading from one corner of each map to another until you wrap up the final battle.

Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover.

Both the personality and texture of combat are vaguely reminiscent of the original Space Hulk PC games. You take the fight to the Genestealers in squads of three when playing with others online, or solo with bots filling out the ranks. Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover. Trying to take out gun turrets is a huge exercise in frustration, as your pals tend to just stand in the open and get blasted until they die.

AI Space Marines are prone to shuffling in place, turning their backs on attacking enemies right in their faces, and standing in the middle of doorways when you’re trying to seal off a room full of aliens. Enemy mobs can easily overwhelm them, and they tend to stand their ground and shoot mindlessly in the face of bosses that destroy them in a matter of seconds. They don’t do anything on their own, either. You have to tell your apothecary marine to patch himself up when his health is low–otherwise he just lets himself die. A radial order menu allows you to give rudimentary commands like Follow, Defend, and Heal, but it’s impossibly clunky to use during combat unless your Deathwing trooper has a deathwish.

Playing co-op is better by far, but it’s currently tough to find a suitable squad. Either hosts are kicking people or there’s something wrong with the online code; it’s far more common to receive a server error message than it is to successfully enter a match.

Some core mechanics are also needlessly quirky. You can’t swap your loadouts on the fly, for example. To swap weapons, revive dead characters, and heal everyone up, you have to activate a Psygate that takes you back to your ship for some TLC. Unfortunately, you only have three of these per level, so it’s easy to exhaust them and find yourself at the end of a scenario with the wrong weapon for the battle at hand. This adds to the intensity of the game by ramping up the consequences every time you trigger a return for some new gear and healing, but it also forces you to start levels from the very beginning at times, which isn’t quite as welcome.

While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best.

The game also crashes to the desktop fairly frequently. One of these crashes actually corrupted a save so that every time it reloaded, the mouse buttons and keyboard wouldn’t work. And when you aren’t forced to replay significant chunks of time, you may end up loading an autosave and begin in the middle of a firefight–an impossible situation and a demotivating outcome.

While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best. Playing cooperatively with a couple of buddies helps smooth over some of these problems, but regardless, combat remains incessantly tedious. The one hope is that the fanatical Games Workshop community grabs hold of the game and starts modding, because the visuals, atmosphere, and ferocity of the combat could be harnessed and turned into something impressive. As is, even the most crazed Warhammer 40,000 or Space Hulk fan will have a tough time appreciating Space Hulk: Deathwing.

The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series – A New Frontier Ep. 2: Ties That Bind Part Two Review

Shocks just keep coming in the second episode of Season Three of The Walking Dead. Telltale continues with the brutal moments and surprise tragedies that kicked off this season, showing that nobody’s safe in the New Frontier. This fast-paced conclusion to The Ties That Bind two-parter sees the new group of main protagonists fronted by the remains of the Garcia family and Clementine facing internal revolt, external challenges, and the looming question of who you can trust in this brutal new world–even if they’re family.

Episode Two picks up immediately where Episode One left off. It begins in sort of a slo-mo style that really sinks the knife in when we witness grief-ridden scenes play out before our eyes. Although the victim and source of everyone’s sadness was only around for one episode, they already felt endearing, thanks to a handful of small but meaningful moments. As a result, Episode Two gets off to a touching and somber start.

Prescott is such a great little town that everyone wants to move in.
Prescott is such a great little town that everyone wants to move in.

This sad interlude is soon replaced by a plot that hastily moves to tear down some of what was established in Episode One and build up what’s likely going to carry the protagonists right through to the season finale. One thing that you can bet on in any Walking Dead story–whether its told in a game, comic, or TV show–is that safe spots tend to get overrun by walkers or bad guys in short order. So, before you can even settle down in Prescott, with its windmill and corrugated dive bar (the place looks like something out of Fallout), it’s not a total surprise when you find yourself on the road again.

Most of this episode takes place on the run. The gang is trying to get to Richmond, both to escape an incoming threat, and to seek help for a wounded character. So while there are a number of big decisions to make–including a horrible life-or-death choice–there’s a ton of action here courtesy of the usual QTE zombie combat. You’re called upon to shoot, bash, and knife a lot of walkers in pretty graphic ways.

Season Three continues to paint captivating scenes with expert use of light and shadow.
Season Three continues to paint captivating scenes with expert use of light and shadow.

All this killing happens mainly during the episode’s big set-piece moment, which takes place alongside a gas station where the road has been intentionally barricaded by cars strewn across the mouth of a tunnel. As with the action scenes in the first episode, these moments seem a little more challenging to get through than any from the first two seasons. Hesitate even for a second, and you may end up hurt–or worse, bitten. Still, don’t expect to die very often; this is still a game geared for a casual audience.

Even though Season Three of The Walking Dead has just started, you can already notice a number of key themes emerging. The notion of family is paramount, and its likely Javy will have to second guess the trust he’s placed in his family…or if he ever should have relied on them in the first place.

This chapter–The Ties That Bind–comes to an end in the second episode. It moves quickly–and in some pretty familiar directions, given how we’ve seen events like the attack on Prescott and the desperate search for a new refuge many times before. But not everything is as expected here, and the dramatic weight tied to unpredictable moments–as well as the amount of action–provides more of the franchise alluring edge-of-your-seat storytelling.

The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series – A New Frontier Ep. 1: Ties That Bind Part One Review

Telltale Games kicks off the third season of its Walking Dead series by introducing a fresh cast of new characters–a logical start for a season dubbed “A New Frontier.” The story’s lens shifts focus across the country to peer into the lives of a struggling family, rather than the exploits of downtrodden survivors. Yet even with all of these changes and scant undead creeps, A New Frontier’s premier episode will feel familiar to fans of the series. Episode one establishes a heady moral stew loaded with hard choices and heartbreak, and is one of the best additions to the series since it began in 2012.

A New Frontier diverges from its two preceding seasons rather dramatically at times, rolling the clock back to the initial zombie outbreak. Here we are introduced to the Garcia family, located on the West Coast. Javier (Javy to his friends) is the new lead–a likable twentysomething and the black sheep of his family. In the opening scene, Javy races to his brother’s house to see their terminally ill father before he dies. But traffic, due to the outbreak, stops him dead in his tracks. When he finally arrives, he’s too late. Emotionally spent, Javy’s brother David punches him in the face, followed by smack from his newly widowed mother. Once again, in their eyes, Javy failed to be there for his family when they needed him the most.

Where past seasons aimed to stay true to The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, A New Frontier's cutscenes employ notable cinematic flair.
Where past seasons aimed to stay true to The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, A New Frontier’s cutscenes employ notable cinematic flair.

Where the first two seasons of the walking dead were mostly about forming familial ties with strangers you meet along the way, here we’re dropped into the middle of a traditional family with preexisting issues; stepmom immediately whips out a joint to relieve the tension of life on the run. There’s illicit yet unspoken romance, hatred between family members, and ghosts of past transgressions lurking beneath the surface. Telltale has come a long way from the melodrama of past seasons, which revolved around the too-often-hysterical Kenny. In A New Frontier, Javy, Kate, Gabe, and Marianna are completely authentic in the way that they act and talk among each other, drawing you into their plight and earning much-deserved empathy.

Like its predecessors, this is an adventure that calls for casual interaction with only a few rudimentary puzzles to solve along the way. Nothing here is wildly challenging–although the quick-time-event combat scenarios do seem a bit more involved than in the past. The meat of the game remains the tremendous dialogue and the sheer number of choices that need to be made when deciding upon a course of action. The plot changes depending on what you do, which can have ramifications on everything from what somebody thinks of you, to who lives and who dies. This pumps up the replay value, with different outcomes motivating you to replay the two-hour story and reconfigure your choices.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Walking Dead game without Clementine. The ballcap-wearing heroine of the first two seasons is back, a little more grown-up and much more of a badass than she was at the end of Season Two. Flashbacks reveal pieces of what she’s been through in the interim, and it isn’t pretty. As a result, Clem now totes a combat shotgun, and her character has become something of a mystery, who may or may not be trustworthy. This is a gutsy direction in which to take a character who, up until now, has been the stainless moral center of the bleak Walking Dead world.

Clem's motives seem mysterious at the start of season three, but one thing's for certain: she's grown up a lot since the end of season two.
Clem’s motives seem mysterious at the start of season three, but one thing’s for certain: she’s grown up a lot since the end of season two.

Season three supports saves from previous seasons across various platforms, so you can port in your past progress–and Clementine’s–no matter how you played Season Two. If you misplaced your old saves, however, the “Continue Your Story” option lets you custom-craft Clementine’s personality through a series of questions related to the first two seasons’ events. No matter how you go about it, when you choose to continue the saga, and you get flashbacks to Lee, Kenny, and the rest of the gang. Start an all-new game, and you get more generic flashbacks to Clem’s life on the road.

While the game continues with the graphic-novel style of the visuals, they’re not as bound to the comics as they seemed to be in the past. Scenes are set with more cinematic flair, with dramatic camera angles and evocative lighting setting the mood. The earlier games Walking Dead games from Telltale looked great in their own right, but this episode takes things to a higher level, exemplified when you see the Garcias’ van speeding down a road under eerie moonlight, and when Javy rides on horseback to rescue his family as the sun rises over a run-down auto yard.

Telltale has crafted another entertaining chapter in the always-growing Walking Dead story. The Ties That Bind Part I takes the series in a welcome new direction with the Garcia family while still staying true to the moral dilemmas and zombie-chomping action that made the first two seasons so compelling. The New Frontier is off to a great start, and its troubled cast’s harrowing journey is just getting started.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun Review

With a trio of assassins, I prepare to breach the outer gates. I make one of my assassins toss out a tasty flask of sake to distract a guard, while another slit the throats of two unwary henchmen nearby. The third, a sniper, perches in a high tower and finishes off the remaining enemies. A few moments later, we’re ready for the shogun–our real target.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an elegant answer to a simple question: How do you make sneaking unnoticed from Point A to Point B compelling? Many games have built themselves around that concept, but few stealth-focused games manage to make sneaking as interesting as Gears of War makes shooting or Portal makes puzzle-solving.t

That’s because the language of games, for better or worse, is usually conflict. But stealth games call for a subtler hand. Often you’ll have to wait for enemies to be in the right place at the right time to make your move, and if you step out of turn and accidentally blow your cover, you may have to say goodbye to your progress and start from scratch.

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Shadow Tactics can be challenging, but isn’t as punishing as most stealth games. From the very beginning, you’re taught to save–constantly. If you go more than a minute without saving, a timer appears onscreen to remind you, growing more intense with each passing minute. Once saving becomes a habit–executed with a single keystroke–you grow more comfortable trying out creative strategies without fear of risking hard-fought progress.

Shadow Tactics frontloads almost all of the training you’ll need for the remainder of the campaign. You have five different assassins under your control, each with their own specific skills. Some can target two or three enemies in a single turn, while others can vault up onto rooftops to gain the upper hand. By the end of the first level, you’ll have working knowledge of every major tactic and ability at your disposal. After that, it’s just a matter of which specific combination of abilities you’ll be able to bring to any one level.

From a serene, wind-swept snowscape to the towering castles of Japan’s Edo period, Blades of the Shogun’s cel shaded environments are all beautifully rendered, and each one introduces a distinct mechanic that alters the rules of stealth. Guards will track footsteps through snow on one map, for example, ratcheting up tension and forcing you to be more rigorous in your approach. With its rules in flux, Blades of the Shogun is consistently tense and challenging, forcing you to plan and react in new ways as you pursue one target after another.

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At times, the complexity of any given level–with potentially dozens of guards and obstacles–can seem overwhelming. But no matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance. You’ll never be surprised, for example, by a guard’s sudden attention. Their cones of vision gradually fill with color–they confirm your location when it’s full and sound an alarm to summon reinforcements. In the brief amount of time it takes for an enemy to take action, you have a chance to get out of trouble, either by throwing a shuriken or quickly ducking out of sight.

If you do trigger an alarm, however, a swarm of new enemies appear and stick around for the rest of the scenario. This presents a series of interesting choices for you to make. You can, if you so choose, take the spike in challenge in exchange for removing one or two particularly pernicious henchmen. They may be replaced, but the newbies won’t pick up the exact patrol pattern or position, so, in some cases, it’s still worth it.

No matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance.

Sudden turns also help develop the relationships between Shadow Tactics’ five main characters. They’ll trade barbs and anecdotes as they tell one another about how they came to this line of work and why they chose to fight. Party members range from the sturdy samurai, Mugen, to the lithe master of disguise Aiko. Hayato is the de facto leader, a dyed-in-the-wool ninja and master of stealth. The thief, Yuki, is faster and lighter, relying on traps and tricks to take down most foes. Last is Takuma, a wise old man and a patient sniper.

Each of their abilities can be chained into the skills of other characters, requiring extremely tight coordination. Over the 20-hour-plus adventure, they grow and learn together as they face mounting challenges and an uncertain future. The story isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but the repartee is relatable and earnest, providing sufficient context for the adventure.

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Across thirteen dense, beautiful areas that can each take a couple of hours to work through, you’ll pick and probe, chopping through complex patterns against what seem like impossible odds. If there’s one complaint, it’s that while each of its parts work together seamlessly, it can often feel like there’s only one correct solution–like you’re trying to find the solution to a puzzle instead of working within a living, breathing world. However, those frustrations are blunted somewhat by ever-present tension, as you’ll often face unexpected twists that prevent you from feeling too comfortable.

Shadow mode, as the game calls it, leads to glorious moments where you get to see all of your hard work, your observation, and attention to detail pay off. It tests your ability to keep track of all the moving pieces in a level and put a plan in motion. You can have a samurai kill off a small band of guards with his special ability, then snipe an officer as he moves in to investigate. Then you can have your other characters stash the bodies to avoid detection–all before the next set of troops rounds the corner. When a plan comes together, it’s a thing of beauty–a symphony of action.

Shadow Tactics understands what makes stealth games so special. It pushes you to organize your own plans such that you’re never seen at all, living up to Thief’s thesis that masterful warriors are ghosts that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. And it takes this concept step further, giving you enough options to ensure you’re never trapped or stuck without recourse. Shadow Tactics’ basic ideas are masterfully executed, making it one of the best stealth games in recent memory.

Werewolves Within Review

There’s a certain thrill to a well-designed lie. You know it’s something you’re not “supposed” to do, but crafting an airtight fib is a test of imagination, improvisation, and grace under pressure. There are a lot of ways a lie can fall apart, though. Someone who knows for a fact that you aren’t telling the truth can call you out on your deception. Do you double down and accuse this person of lying, come up with a new lie, or clam up because you know you’ve been caught? The best moments of Ubisoft’s Werewolves Within test your ability to handle those precise situations.

Werewolves Within is a multiplayer VR game for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR, and the basic concept should be familiar to anyone who ever played Mafia, Werewolf, or similar card games. Players are placed into groups of eight and then assigned a role to determine their win conditions. Villagers have to work together and figure out who the Werewolves are. Werewolves have to lie and misdirect the Villagers, or ensure their victory by having themselves and any other Werewolves vote unanimously for the saint. The Deviant has to convince everyone else that they’re a Werewolf–if the Deviant is voted out, they win.

If you’re a non-Saint villager, things start off relatively straightforward. You can tell everyone else your role. If you’re a Tracker or a Gossip or an Astrologer, you have abilities that reveal information about the roles of those around you. Houndsmen can “sniff” the players sitting next to them and learn their roles. Trackers know if there’s at least one “Werewolf” in half the group to one of their sides. Gossips have information that may or may not be true about members of the group.

But Werewolves and Deviants throw wrenches in these plans. If you’re a Werewolf, how do you throw the party off your trail? One tactic is to wait for another member of the group to claim they had one specific Villager role–and then say they were lying, and that you have that role, casting aspersions on other party members. Deviants add even more chaos because it’s their job to act as suspicious as possible.

As a Villager, it’s impossible to have perfect information about the party because you never know who is lying to you. Good werewolves sow dissent amongst the party til it’s total chaos and all of the villagers are at each other’s throats because they don’t know who to believe. The best deviants will be so wily that they’ll have you convinced they’re a werewolf who barely understands the rules of the game and is just asking to be caught.

For a game built entirely around social interaction, Werewolves Within unfortunately doesn’t have enough safeguards in place to deal with abusive or inappropriate players. The game offers “mute” and “kick” options, but muting another player is pointless because all players need to be able to speak in order for the game to work, and kicking a player requires a majority vote from the group–a rare occurrence.

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Bad apples aside, Werewolves Within proves that VR doesn’t have to feel like an isolating experience. The immersion it affords makes you all the more convinced that you’re sitting in a circle, conversing group of people. Your avatar’s head follows where you, the player, are looking, so if you’re lying to another player about your role, there’s a good chance you’re looking them right in their “eyes” as you do it.

It isn’t just the immersive nature of VR that makes the social stuff work so well. Player avatars are thoughtfully animated; when you speak, they move their mouths and gesticulate to communicate a wide range of emotions. The avatars can be so convincing that they become almost indistinguishable from the player controlling them after only a few rounds. The only exception is when a player’s voice is dropped mid sentence–a bug that’s unfortunately common.

There are so many ways that a Werewolves Within match can go down that it’s also a shame the overall game is somewhat threadbare at launch. There’s a single game mode, and that’s it. Additionally, there’s no ranking system or even a way to keep track of your stats. If you want to know how often you win as a Werewolf versus how often you win as a Villager, you’re out of luck. The game keeps track of no information of any kind besides trophies, which is a shame, because the core game offers so much to pick apart.

A week after launch, Werewolves Within has a seemingly dedicated player base, though not one big enough to prevent occasionally waiting 20 minutes for a “quick match.” But the best matches–with a good group–are hair-raising, pulse-quickening experiences that are worth the wait. If Ubisoft can find a way to expand the community and add more incentives to return to the game, it’s easy to see Werewolves Within becoming a regular haven for players looking to test their guile in VR.

Dragon Ball Fusions Review

Humor is an element of the Dragon Ball series that often goes overlooked in games. Where many Dragon Ball Z games effectively showcase superpowered combat, Dragon Ball Fusions is an attempt to embrace the sillier side of Dragon Ball in gaming form–though, sadly, it falls victim to repetitive combat and dull progression systems.

In some ways, Fusions feels like a companion game to the Dragon Ball Xenoverse series. Much like those games, you start off by designing a custom character based on one of the various races from the show, picking facial features, a hairstyle, and an accompanying voice. Once you’re done, you’re immediately thrust into the colorful world of Dragon Ball. The bright, often surreal environments and structures from the Dragon Ball universe are beautifully rendered on 3DS, and although the ability to view the game in 3D had to be sacrificed in the process, it’s not a huge loss.

Your adventure begins as you and your pal Pinnich–an original character created for Fusions–find the last of the Dragon Balls, earning the right to make a wish. Pinnich is a pretty simple-minded type: he wants to have the biggest, baddest tournament ever to determine the strongest warrior in all of the Dragon Ball universe. Before you know it, a wide range of the series’ locales are combined into a towering vertical universe, and everyone from across the franchise’s history is now trying to find teammates for the upcoming brawl. Pinnich has gone his own way, but you make fast friends with familiar faces: Trunks, Goten, and young Goku. With the help of other Dragon Ball favorites, you’ll meet and recruit numerous other characters to your team, ascend further skyward, and hopefully take the title of the greatest fighters the universe has ever seen.

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In between battles, you’ll soar around 3D environments, exploring and battling foes that cross your path while finding the means to progress further. There are towns to visit along the way that offer side quests, places to shop, and people to chat with. Fitting with the game’s overall lighthearted tone, your chats with NPCs tend to be on the silly side–though they may be ally or foe, you’re more likely to discuss things like food and puns than you are to address the bigger conflict at hand. Unfortunately, Fusions’ localization leaves something to be desired: there’s no English voice acting, some character names are inconsistent across menus, and there are times when dialogue in text boxes cuts off entirely.

You control up to five characters in a flat, overhead-view 2D space, fighting against a team of up to five opponents. As you battle, you and your foes move around the arena. This positioning proves to be very important in numerous ways. For example, if you’re close to friendly characters, they can help the fighter you’re currently commanding land some extra damage. If you’re launching a melee attack against a foe, you can try to knock them in a direction where another ally character will hit them, or you can smash them against another enemy for a pool-style ricochet effect. If you decide you want to fight with ki blasts or special moves instead, you can try to hit multiple enemies in a line or go for an area-of-effect technique. If you manage to knock an opponent out of the arena entirely, you’re treated to a cutscene, extra damage, and you reset their turn. But you must stay on your guard, since these same rules apply to your foes’ attacks as well.

Attacks big and small are accompanied by an unskippable cutscene. While these initially replicate the dynamism of the fights in the anime and manga, repeatedly seeing the same animations greatly diminishes their impact over time.

Zenkai attacks, which use stock from a bar that charges over the course of battle, briefly turn the game into an action aerial dogfight where you slug it out one-on-one with a chosen enemy for big-time damage. The titular Fusions allow you to combine characters using the ever-so-ridiculous Fusion Dance, granting the resulting character stat buffs and access to advanced techniques–along with some pretty funny-looking character hybrids.

There’s even a fusion skill that combines all five characters participating in battle into a single, superpowered warrior, who then launches an intense assault for a huge burst of damage. While this last option consumes a lot of resources, more or less emptying your power bar, it’s immensely fun and provides benefits beyond just incredible damage, such as reviving warriors on your side who might have been knocked out. Again, your foes can also do these techniques, meaning that you’re technically on equal footing in terms of your combat resources–though, depending on their level and team makeup, their abilities may vary.

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This all sounds pretty cool on paper, but in practice, it quickly turns into a slog. Attacks big and small are accompanied by an unskippable cutscene. While these initially replicate the dynamism of the fights in the anime and manga, repeatedly seeing the same animations greatly diminishes their impact over time. Fighting low-level enemies to farm energy and, eventually, recruits becomes an exercise in tedium.

Characters are designated as power, speed, or technique types in a triangular advantage/disadvantage system, which can be a real pain if you wind up in a lopsided fight. Even then, most of the non-boss fights in this game aren’t hard–they’re just drawn-out and repetitive. The frustrating elements of fighting come to a head at Fusions’ end, where the game starts asking you to perform very specific actions in combat in order to win battles–a sharp contrast to the free-form fighting seen earlier in the game.

Ultimately, Dragon Ball Fusions feels like a game with some great ideas that could’ve been executed better. The interpretation of the Dragon Ball world is great, and the fun of allowing all kinds of fan-fiction-style character fusions is a strong basis to build a fan-service-laden romp around. If the progression felt a bit less stilted and fights weren’t drawn out, repetitive affairs, this would be one of the strongest Dragon Ball games out there. Alas, just like Hercule in the series, Dragon Ball Fusions postures and promises more than it actually delivers.

Steep Review

Mountains are far from uncommon in open-world exploration games, but even in the most impressive ones, they’re normally little more than pretty white fences encircling a greener playfield. Steep reverses this concept with some success. Here, it’s the valleys and green spots of the world that trigger the invisible walls and the mighty Alps that fill its rocky, snowy sandbox. Steep’s gameplay unfortunately falls short of matching the grandeur of its open world, but it’s a tough act to follow.

Steep lets you seamlessly zip down mountain ranges via snowboards, skis, wingsuits, or paragliders with a quick click of a radial menu. At any time, you can leap from below the treeline to miles-high “drop points” you’ve discovered–either by walking or taking a helicopter–and partake in events and challenges that pepper the slopes. The races and time trials you find are fun ways to test your skill against everything from smooth powder to tougher rocky paths. Meanwhile, the freestyle events celebrate and grant experience points for general showmanship, and the “Bone Collector” events add some humor by inviting you to throw your body off a cliff as spectacularly as an avalanche.

The trouble with Steep is that beyond the gratification you get from simply moving about it’s impressive world, the best rewards it offers are cosmetic items, like fluffy bunny suits, and newly unlocked events that closely resemble ones you’ve already played before. The gameplay itself never changes: Your wingsuit might eventually look cooler with that sleek GoPro branding, but it always handles the same way regardless of how it looks. Nor does Steep actually embrace its “play as you want” philosophy as thoroughly as initial appearances suggest; you’ll need to rank well in most events in order to level up, even if you find the paragliding events as appealing as a snowman might find the Bahamas.

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That wouldn’t be such a problem if some equipment wasn’t considerably more enjoyable to use than others. Snowboarding is the best by far–performing spins, flips, and short glides off rocky prominences remains thrilling even hours in, as does navigating through narrow snowy chasms and deserted, half-buried villages. Skiing comes in a close second, although with a slightly more ponderous sensation of weight.

Whether you snowboard or ski, you’re bound to encounter frustrating controls. Even after hours of experience, timing jumps remains more of an art than a science, and sometimes your character may refuse to respond to commands that should have sent them flipping through the air for tricks that generate more points.

Steep often comes off feeling like the collaborative effort of two wildly divergent personalities–a John Muir-like wilderness sage, say, and a loud-mouthed Red Bull announcer.

The wingsuit supplies a different brand of excitement, allowing you to jump off piers far up in the peaks and hurtle yourself face-first near powerlines and mere inches above jagged slopes for greater points. The physics involved sometimes seem wonky and fantastical, but they’re never impossible to master and the wingsuit events yield an entertaining alternative to the ground-based trials. Steep also allows you to paraglide, but from a mechanical perspective, this approach comes off as painfully dull. Watching Europe’s grandest mountains pass below as you glide overhead is initially awesome, but the paragliding suit’s simple controls leaves a lot to be desired; it demands little more than occasionally steering toward pockets of air in humdrum events that can drag on for a quarter of an hour. They’re not even particularly challenging–in many cases, you can skip off the designated course, over a neighboring peak, and glide right down to the finish line.

Taking everything into account, Steep often comes off feeling like the collaborative effort of two wildly divergent personalities–a John Muir-like wilderness sage, say, and a loud-mouthed Red Bull announcer. In its finest moments, swishing past the pines over a landscape awash in varying shades of white for long stretches at a time, it invites slipping into the meditative trance. But then, without fail (unless you turn him off in settings), the extreme announcer butts into that tranquility and drags you back to garish corporate reality, complete with Red Bull logos emblazoned on the sides of helicopters. The HUD itself sometimes ruins the mood, as the gaudy markers showing the locations of the many events stand out as starkly as billboards might in an Ansel Adams photo.

Some of Steep’s commendable exploratory features can tend toward the goofy, as in the “mountain stories” that personify peaks like France’s Pointe Percée by giving them voice actors who brag about how they’re “the showman, the bombastic” and how “you’ll shred snow-caked ruins below my summit.” There are lingering bugs to contend with as well, which usually amount to mere inconvenience, but might send you falling under the mountain like Gandalf and the Balrog.

Still, Steep’s reflective moments and the sheer joy of its exploration can outweigh some of its rougher points, and some of the most fun it offers comes from simply traveling to undiscovered locations–just you against the mountain. Most players on the slopes seem to favor this playstyle despite Steep’s easy grouping options and its insistence on online play; time and time again, it’s challenging to find people interested in grouping up. Most of the time, unless you have some friends to invite along for some real competition, the multiplayer implementation seems best for watching others pull off complicated tricks.

Steep is a game that’s never really sure what it is, and its vagueness and lack of meaningful rewards causes it to suffer in any comparisons to the likes of SSX. But there’s a quiet thrill to exploring the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, and snowed-in Alpine villages. It’s a strangely attractive approach for all its qualifications, and there’s a constant sense that Ubisoft is channeling George Mallory’s famous response when asked why he wanted to scramble up Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”

I Expect You to Die Review

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a daring escape. You’ve exhausted your options, had your epiphanies, and applied your knowledge under the extreme pressure of imminent death. It’s only in the aftermath, as your heart rate slows, that you realize how close you were to failure. But you succeeded anyway.

I Expect You to Die captures that feeling. It finds you in the shoes of an international spy intent on foiling the plans of the evil Zoraxis corporation, placing you in discrete escape-room scenarios that test your intelligence, resourcefulness, and performance under pressure. It’s equal parts terrifying and thrilling. It’s a rewarding puzzle game and one of my favorite virtual reality experiences yet.

This is due almost entirely to how well I Expect You to Die uses VR to its advantage. Although it can be played using a mouse, keyboard, and standard monitor, the game is multitudes better on Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR, where Touch controllers or PS Move remotes make proceedings a much more tactile, involving experience. Many of these puzzles would be simple in a standard video game. In I Expect You to Die, on the other hand, they’re nuanced and rewarding. It almost goes without saying, but here, in these virtual escape rooms, you almost feel the puzzles. You’re there, twisting your head to find useful items, glancing at your feet when you drop a primed explosive, extending your hand to seal the cracked window of an underwater vessel.

The story serves mainly as context for your accolades, setting up each tense situation your suave character finds himself in. These range from bomb defusals to daring submarine escapes. My favorite asks you to create an anti-serum capable of distilling a chemical weapon formula, all the while disguised as a blue-collar window washer. Combining a variety of volatile chemicals is horrifying, but using my sponge on the glass in front of me to throw a nearby guard off the scent lends the predicament a grounded, almost humorous angle–the guard saw me, deemed me a harmless pedestrian, and went about his business.

Every super spy needs a lighter.
Every super spy needs a lighter.

Even now, in a year where virtual reality has finally broken into the mainstream, it’s hard to describe the emotions a good VR game can elicit. The added layer of kineticism makes the mere act of swiping a virtual sponge up and down involving, to the point that I was afraid to turn my head and make eye contact with the suspicious guard. I stared straight ahead, both at the virtual world’s digital window, and physical headset lenses in front of me, experiencing a fear that doesn’t dissipate as soon as it may in a standard video game. It’s not just that your hands start sweating–it’s that your whole body goes rigid.

I Expect You to Die is reserved in its approach to VR, but for the better. Each of the four escape scenarios find your character in a seated, or at least stationary, position: in the driver’s seat of a car, the desk of an office, the elevated platform outside a skyscraper window. Furthermore, developer Schell Games grants you the power of telekinesis–with only spare time spent justifying the ability, opting instead to admit how ridiculous it is through self-aware writing–allowing you to pull distant objects toward you. This lets you feel at home in I Expect You to Die’s world. Like your character, you can remain seated, and it won’t feel out of place in the virtual environment you inhabit.

There’s a bit of a learning curve to these controls, as you discern the sensitivity of your telekinetic powers and gauge how hard to maneuver your Touch controller’s analog stick. Once you do, however, you’ll be levitating card keys through complex laser grids, avoiding any alarms and deactivating security measures, giving you a moment to breathe before handling dangerous chemical solutions in the enemy’s laboratory.

One of many gauges you'll have to monitor during an underwater escape.
One of many gauges you’ll have to monitor during an underwater escape.

Throughout the game, voiceovers by an archetypical British assistant direct you with one-liners and observational quips that highlight the perks and downfalls of being a super spy. “For your next mission you’re going to the Caribbean,” he muses. “But don’t expect a vacation. I already told you we can’t afford that.” Like the writing that justifies your telekinetic powers, I Expect You to Die’s overall script is humorous, and shows a vivid understanding of its source material–spy movies with heroes too cool, and too daring, to feel fear. And the best part about this game is just that: it makes you feel like those heroes, those Bonds and Bournes and Bauers, as they barely escape with their lives, only to straighten their tie as explosions paint the screen behind them.

I Expect You to Die does slip and fall along the way, though. While countdown timers and decreasing oxygen supplies exacerbate the tension of a bomb defusal or underwater escape, respectively, they result in frequent deaths and subsequent retries when they don’t really work. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, as each new attempt increases both your mastery of the escape room and, as a result, the feeling of being a trained spy. But it does lead to frustration along the way. More than once, I accidentally pulled the pin on a grenade instead of merely grabbing the grenade itself. I also tried my best to rotate a nearby oxygen valve in my underwater sub, only to find the Touch or PS Move controls unresponsive. And, suffocating sucks.

But the annoyances caused by these hiccups pale in comparison to the thrills I Expect You to Die delivers. Through well designed puzzles, intense escape room scenarios, and a kineticism absent in video games on standard screens, I Expect You to Die knows exactly how to leverage the magic of VR, and proves it almost every step of the way.