Last Day Of June Review

When tragedy strikes, we crave the ability to go back and change things. We grieve and yearn for a real-life rewind button that gives us a do-over. We often assume that future events are delicately determined based on every little decision that we make. Of course, in reality, events don’t work like that–there’s probably no one flashpoint that could be prevented to stop something from happening in the future. Last Day of June deals with the frustration, anger, grief, and hope that comes from this belief that changing one little thing could reverse a tragedy–perhaps save a person from death.

In Last Day of June, Carl and June, deeply and happily in love, have taken a day to go on an outing to one of their favorite places. They spend the day relaxing and simply enjoying each other’s company. A thunderstorm cuts the day short, however, and on the way back home, the couple experiences a horrific tragedy. Suffering a car accident, June is killed and Carl is paralyzed from the waist down.

You take control of Carl years after the event, alone and still bearing the injuries of that day. Carl is presented with the opportunity to relive–over and over–the short time before June’s death, from the perspectives of every other character who lives in their small community. You can change the outcomes of each character’s story, slowly modifying the events of that day in a desperate attempt to somehow save June.

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Throughout the story, Carl’s grief is palpable. Although the story unfolds with no real dialogue or words, the game’s beautiful art style and animations effectively convey his emotions–you’re drawn into the desperation that Carl feels, and the faint hope that the portals to the past give him. This is true of all the characters; the love, loss, fear, and joy of all of them are made real. At first, it’s confusing to follow the language of the characters, which is composed of nothing but indecipherable grunts and muttering. But after growing accustomed to it, verbal intonation and subtle body language sufficiently communicate the shape of conversations and the color of the characters’ emotions, if not specific content.

This is made possible through Last Day of June’s gorgeous art style. The entire world is rendered as if was a watercolor painting, with soft pastels, blended colors, and visible brushstrokes. Character models are Tim Burton-esque, with unnatural proportions and few defined features. But they fit the painterly environments, moving and interacting as if in a storybook. It’s Last Day of June’s best quality, and the story wouldn’t have nearly the emotional impact without it. The likely narrative wouldn’t even make sense without it, as the storybook quality provides the encouragement you need to fill in gaps (especially with the characters’ communication) with your own imagination.

It’s disappointing, then, that the core gameplay–reliving these moments again and again to try to change them–results in frustration. In Last Day of June, you do nothing but move around and complete quicktime events, which isn’t inherently a problem if it’s done effectively and paced well. But Last Day of June is based on performing repetitive actions–move down the road, press X, move, press X, complete the day, see what unfolds–while also watching the exact same scenes. Last Day of June’s formula sounds interesting and engrossing in theory. In practice, it presents you with moments that feel little different than being forced to watch an unskippable cutscene.

This is particularly damaging in a game that relies so strongly on its emotional impact. The first time June died was heartbreaking. The eighth, ninth, and tenth times were just annoying. It’s potentially a fatal flaw, because replaying the past is the entire conceit of the game. If it can’t hold your concentration, or if you’re desensitized to a critical event, then the resolution won’t have any impact. There is something novel about simply inhabiting Last Day of June’s world and trying to figure out what you need to do to change a character’s outcome, but scenes are repeated too often for the positive moments to overcome the annoyance.

Further, the puzzle elements of the game–trying to figure out how to change the course of events–are themselves affected because, to succeed, you actually have to go back and redo characters’ arcs that you’ve already completed previously. In a way, it’s similar to the Tower of Hanoi: you can see exactly what you need to do to get a desired outcome, but the mechanics of the game force you to play through scenes multiple times to get the right combination of outcomes that you’ve already witnessed.

There is something novel about simply inhabiting Last Day of June’s world and trying to figure out what you need to do to change a character’s outcome, but scenes are repeated too often for the positive moments to overcome the annoyance.

The game’s final moments are robbed of some of their potential because of just how many times you sit through the same events. Last Day of June does compress events to a certain extent, accelerating you to a point where you take control of the character at an important choice. But it never abridges the cutscenes enough, especially when it comes time to “end the day” and see how your choices had affected things. The day’s conclusion changes slightly as you progress, but it would’ve been vastly improved had the game returned to its gameplay sooner.

Moreover, the Groundhog Day-esque nature of Last Day of June is even more frustrating because of loading times that are long enough to break immersion in the narrative. When each day concludes, you must load back into the game. Any time you jump into another character’s perspective, you’ll have to stare at a loading screen for about 30 seconds. It’s worse on a PS4 than a PS4 Pro, but either way it’s an issue. Traveling through a portal is far less exciting when you have to look at a white screen for several seconds.

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It’s a testament to the game’s writing that many story moments still shine in spite of the frustrating mechanics and loading times. The small community of characters feels alive with a deep familial history and personal flourishes that made these characters believable. For example, you may empathize with the young boy who has no other child to play with and resorts to begging adults for companionship, and feel the weight of June’s best friend’s struggle with her own secret infatuation with Carl. The vignettes of the side characters give the game’s story richness and flavor; you end up knowing them much better than you know Carl and June. Although that may also limit how invested you are in Carl and June’s romance at any given moment, you appreciate the gravity and importance of the unintentional role each of these characters played in June’s demise.

Last Day of June’s brevity is its saving grace, buoying up a story that isn’t done any favors by its gameplay loop. There is undoubtedly potential in a game that allows you to alter past events to reshape the present, and Last Day of June shows glimmers of promise; however, it also ruins the emotional impact of its most important event by forcing you to repeat it so many times. It’s a big problem when players grow irritated with the story arc of the character that the game is named after. But this repetitiveness is mitigated in part because of touching, relatable side characters and because Last Day of June explores the philosophical struggle between determinism and free will in a way that’s fairly rare in video games. Last Day of June succeeds when it doesn’t focus specifically on the love story of Carl and June, but rather on their entire community and the way they confront mortality and fate.

Absolver Review

There’s no other game quite like Absolver. Parisian indie developer, Sloclap, has defined it as an online melee action game, which is appropriate but doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover an intriguing marriage between 3D fighting games, deck builders, and online open-world RPGs, with a broad spectrum of influences ranging from Tekken, to Dark Souls, God Hand, and even Journey. It’s a curious transmogrification of contrasting genres, yet it’s Absolver’s third-person brawling, and the unique Combat Deck, that form the game’s beating heart.

Your journey in Absolver begins when you arrive in the collapsed empire of Adal. Despite its modest size, this once thriving civilization is impressively varied. Whether it’s the vibrant colours of the verdant Hunter’s Path, the orange hues cast by the setting sun at Bird Callers Outpost, or the muted tinge that envelops the swamplands of the Forgotten Temple. Its cities and townships, too, are refreshingly diverse: the architecture is inspired by ancient cultures like the Vikings and Greeks, with large wooden halls sitting in stark contrast to the opulent white marble of the Tower of Adal. The clean, delightful simplicity of Absolver’s art design–and its use of eye-catching colour–establishes cohesion between these distinct locales that gives Adal a crucial sense of place.

Yet the beauty of Absolver’s lush greenery and glistening waterfalls belies the weary souls left behind in Adal’s crumbling ruins. These solemn warriors failed on their search for absolution, and you’ll hope not to succumb to the same fate.

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[Absolver has] an unparalleled combat system that’s immensely deep and provides a wonderful sense of ownership over your character

As a fresh-faced Prospect, your goal in Absolver is simple: defeat a series of mini-bosses known as the Marked Ones to gain entry into the Tower of Adal. Once there, you must fight your way to its summit, and face off against one final boss to prove your worth and earn the right to join the vaunted ranks of the Absolvers. This expedition isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, of course, especially with so many battle-hardened warriors standing in your way. But the story in Absolver doesn’t stretch itself much beyond this singular quest. There are some sprinklings of lore imparted by the few friendly NPCs you encounter on your travels, but the narrative is relatively minimalist. In truth, Absolver’s tales will permeate from those who play it, manifested in the fighting styles they build themselves.

You see, combat in Absolver is fully customisable. As you explore the open-world of Adal, you’ll wander into skirmishes and accrue attribute points that can be spent on levelling up familiar stats like strength, dexterity, vitality, and so on. As you engage in combat, however, you’ll also gradually learn new moves by blocking, dodging, or parrying unknown attacks from your opponents. You start off with only a handful of moves, but there are 180 in total, and the only way to learn them all is by fighting enemies and other players that use them, or by joining a school where a highly ranked player can take you under their tutelage. It’s a curious system that in some ways apes real life, as you learn new techniques simply by observing others. It also guarantees that even if you’re fighting with no real objective in mind, there’s a high chance you’re going to make some progress towards unlocking new moves that can then be incorporated into your ever-growing arsenal.

This assortment of moves is displayed in Absolver’s Combat Deck. Although you pick a fighting style at the game’s outset that comes complete with its own defensive maneuvers and preset combos, you can go into the Combat Deck at any time and build your own moveset to completely alter the way you fight. In practice, there are four different combat stances that represent your orientation relative to your opponent: front left, front right, back left, and back right. Each move begins and ends in one of these stances, so if you map out a sequence of moves correctly, you can chain together long strings of combinations that elegantly flow from one stance to the next. You might begin a combo in the front left stance, throwing a couple of quick jabs that end in a guardbreaking palm strike and shift into the bottom right stance, enabling you to unleash a flurry of powerful kicks on a staggered foe. With various properties applied to some moves, and power, range, and speed benefits to consider, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into. It’s an unparalleled combat system that’s immensely deep and provides a wonderful sense of ownership over your character.

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There’s a rhythmic beauty to the way the action flows that’s entirely predicated on your timing. Button mashing is out of the question here; this is a graceful dance to the death, with thunderous uppercuts and balletic roundhouse kicks taking the place of pirouettes and allegros. When you perfect the timing of a sequence, it almost feels too good to be true, like you’re part of an elaborately choreographed fight scene. You start mixing in deceptive feints to throw off your opponent’s timing before striking back with brutal counter-attacks, and using dodges or parries to swiftly keep out of harm’s way, while always being mindful of an ever-depleting stamina bar that governs every action. There’s a palpable sense of weight to each sundering blow, too, so it feels satisfying when a forceful attack connects with a bone-shattering impact. Not to mention how rewarding it feels to put away an opponent with a sequence of attacks that’s wholly your own.

And that last point is especially pertinent when it comes to fighting other players. Going mano-a-mano in competitive 1v1 duels regularly conjures Absolver’s most thrilling moments. The combat really springs to life when you’re staring down another player, wondering what surprises they have lurking within their Combat Deck. And it’s here where Absolver most closely resembles a traditional fighting game. Matches are decided by whoever’s first to three wins, with bespoke battle arenas disconnecting these brawls from the open-world. There’s an exciting back-and-forth to these encounters as you get a feel for one another’s movesets. And the dynamic of the fight often evolves over time, as you attempt to get a handle on your opponent’s strategies and look for ways to counteract them or fail in the process. It’s engaging stuff, but there is a downside.

While the combat in Absolver is predominantly fought hand-to-hand, weapons do make occasional appearances. Their inclusion in these 1v1 duels, however temporary, is unfortunate, as they feel overpowered and can hastily flip the landscape of a fight on its head. There’s a risk and reward aspect at play, as weapons can be dropped and snatched up by your opponent, but at launch, a player brandishing a sword doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and diminishes some of the enjoyment of these otherwise tense bouts.

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The clean, delightful simplicity of Absolver’s art design–and its use of eye-catching colour–establishes cohesion between these distinct locales that gives Adal a crucial sense of place.

Elsewhere, the rest of Absolver’s multiplayer is seamless, with up to three players able to passively enter your game at any given time. You can choose to ignore them (and Absolver can be played offline), team up for cooperative PvE, or fight against each other in friendly sparring sessions. There’s no real punishment for dying, which grants any player-on-player fisticuffs an air of lightheartedness. And with no text or voice chat to dilute the experience, it’s easy to develop an unspoken bond with those you meet on your travels.

Cooperative play is spoiled somewhat by the messy nature of Absolver’s multi-person brawls, however. When you’re in a group, most fights are trivialised as you simply gank your targets into submission. And when you’re on your own, their chaotic and defensive nature is a disappointing far cry from the finesse and purity of its one-on-one battles.

Absolver has a few problems, then, yet they’re not impactful enough to take away from its unique strengths. There’s a significant challenge involved in learning Absolver’s combat intricacies, but it’s the kind of struggle that rarely frustrates. Defeat is part and parcel of the experience, but your demise always teaches you something new that you can take with you into the next battle–and Absolver’s deep, nuanced combat always finds ways of enticing you back for one more fight.

Warriors All-Stars Review

In yet another attempt to wring some more cash out of its famous Musou series (or Dynasty Warriors and its spin-offs, to you and I), Tecmo-Koei have had the bright idea of releasing a game in the Musou mould that throws together a bunch of characters from its various IPs.

Series fans might initially raise an eyebrow at this, as the Warriors Orochi games have combined Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors characters for some time now, and more recently characters from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden. But if Warriors All-Stars demonstrates anything, it’s that Tecmo-Koei’s back-catalogue is perhaps a little more varied than you thought.

The game plays out in typical Musou fashion, with you taking control of a general and proceeding to slash your way through literally hundreds of hapless enemies in each battle, and occasionally going toe-to-toe with an enemy general with similar abilities to your own. Charging up gauges by dealing or receiving damage allows you to unleash powerful attacks, and there are some light strategic elements at play as each battle features constantly shifting objectives that force you to make decisions about where to position yourself, which enemy generals to target, which allies to support, which bases to take control of, and so on.

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This core loop of near-effortless wading through hordes of enemies with the occasional urgent objective or battle with another general, remains as compelling as ever. The series has a reputation as a mindless button-masher, not least because standard enemies seldom even attempt to attack you, but there’s an alluring serenity to it at times, a satisfaction in neatly mopping up every last bit of red on the map before bringing the battle to a close. Moreover, while mastery of your chosen character’s moveset doesn’t initially seem a huge concern, it becomes essential as the difficulty ramps up and you’re forced to juggle more and more time-sensitive objectives. Dealing with hordes of enemies is easy, but you really have to learn to do it as efficiently as possible.

All-Stars mostly sticks to this formula, but it does have a few ideas of its own. As well as picking the character you’ll play as for each battle, you can also pick up to four other characters to accompany you. For the most part they’ll simply follow you around and help you defeat enemies as you go, but they also each have a specific supporting move that can be triggered at will. These range from status effects, such as putting enemies to sleep, to creating a vortex that sucks all enemies in its range into a small area, allowing you to more easily dispatch them with a single combo. In addition to this, each of these characters can be called up to stand side-by-side with your character and mimic their actions, essentially forming a ludicrous wall of death for a limited time.

Chief among the new additions, though, is Musou Rush. You start each battle with the ability to perform one Rush, and once used you can recharge it by fulfilling certain objectives. When activated, some chirpy trumpets kick in and you become incredibly overpowered for a short period of time, as your chosen allies appear on-screen to cheer you on as if they’re your biggest fans.

The best part of all is that it doesn’t even matter if there aren’t hundreds of enemies around to begin with–once you activate a Rush, the game just starts spawning them in front of you as fast as you can take them down. It makes absolutely no sense, but as a concession to the joys of player empowerment and the general idiotic brilliance of the Musou games, it’s a wonderful thing to behold.

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The diverse array of characters is an absolute joy … Anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that’ll bring a smile to their face

The diverse array of characters in the game is also an absolute joy. When viewing the initial set of available warriors, it’s easy to scoff at some of the more leftfield choices the developers have made; Sophie from Atelier, Arnice from Nights of Azure, Laegrinna from Deception… but it’s fair to say that anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games (and you’re reading a review of a Musou game, so: hi!) will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that’ll bring a smile to their face, if only due to the sheer peculiarity of it. The inclusion of William Adams from this year’s surprise hit Nioh is a fitting one; the inclusion of Opoona from the 2007 Wii RPG of the same name is less understandable, and all the more brilliant for it.

Easily the best character in the game is Oda Nobunyaga, from the Samurai Cats series that never made it to the West. Modelled mostly on the famous Japanese warlord with almost the same name, Nobunyaga differs slightly in that he is a tiny cat equipped with a rifle and a magnificent baritone voice. His attack combos repeatedly summon groups of his tiny gun-toting cat-soldiers to blast anyone in the vicinity, and he might actually be the best character to ever appear in a Musou game.

That said, players might be a little disappointed by the paucity of game modes on offer. While previous iterations have included story modes, free battles, multiplayer, and the superb Empires mode that sees players conquering their way across a map by strategically picking battles to take part in, All-Stars has a story mode, and nothing else.

People hardly flock to Musou games for their labyrinthine narrative, and All-Stars certainly isn’t bucking the trend here. Of course, a game that pulls together dozens of characters from different franchises was never going to be massively coherent, but suffice it to say it’s the usual guff about a royal family performing a hero-summoning magic ritual so they can get some help defeating evil incarnate and heal the land. Still, skipping the cutscenes is easy enough, and if nothing else the knowing-ridiculous premise combined with the boldly-coloured menus and upbeat soundtrack give the game a strong Saturday-morning cartoon vibe.

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The aforementioned royal family has also helpfully split into three warring factions, each with their own storyline as well as unique playable characters and missions. So, even if you’re not fussed about the story, there are plenty of excuses for multiple playthroughs and the option to take on non-essential missions throughout to strengthen your characters means there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.

The trouble is that All-Stars has the misfortune of being released as the Dynasty Warriors 9 hype train is gathering speed, and Tecmo-Koei have made it quite clear that they’re on the cusp of bringing substantial changes to the admittedly formulaic series. While it might seem unfair to judge All-Stars against a game that doesn’t even have a release date yet, it’s hard to see it as something more than a stopgap to keep fans happy while the promised headline act is still in development.

That doesn’t stop Warriors All-Stars from being a lot of fun in its own right, though. Series newcomers might be better served by the likes of Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends or Hyrule Warriors–equally enjoyable games that can now be found at much lower prices–but All-Stars’ twist on the standard Musou mechanics and the delightful whimsy of its whole premise certainly elevates it enough to make it an easy recommendation for veterans.

And once again, to be clear: you can play as a talking warlord cat with a gun.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

How Ubisoft’s Rabbids become intertwined with Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom, featuring Mario and friends, is unimportant. Ambivalence towards Rabbid-style toilet humor might cause you to question this dubious marriage, but there’s an admirable and wholehearted commitment in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle that triumphs in creating a magical game world that is undeniably delightful, and within it, houses a deep, challenging turn-based tactical combat system.

The invasion of the dimwitted Rabbids brings out the sillier side of the Mushroom Kingdom, reminiscent of the Mario & Luigi RPG series, but with some interesting oddities. The humor is self-aware, a little more twisted, and conscious of the real world. This is likely the first time we’ve seen Mario’s email get hacked, or heard antagonists threaten the plumber with actual death, for instance. But there’s so much charm packed into every cartoony crevice of Mario + Rabbids–everything from the vibrant world, the incredibly expressive enemy animations, right down to the chuckle-worthy text descriptions of every item–that it’s hard not to find something that makes you smile. But the most significant and strangest disruption to the lives of the Mario Bros. (aside from their new, creepy, Rabbid doppelganger allies) are guns, explosives, and an imperative to use them.

Those familiar with Firaxis Games’ reboot of the XCOM series will know what to expect: Turn-based conflicts take place on a gridded, isometric battlefield where projectile weapons, cover, and flanking are a major focus. However, Kingdom Battle twists that design heavily by introducing abilities and options which encourage a more aggressive style of fighting, as well as situational urgencies to create a faster-paced, more exciting ebb and flow to battle compared to its influences.

Unlike other tactical games, combatants are allowed to perform movement, attacks, and special abilities in a single turn and in any order. This means using a special ability doesn’t stop you from attacking during that same turn, movement doesn’t need to be your first consideration, and you don’t need to finish performing all actions with one character before using another. Characters also can use their movement phase to attack, by selecting enemies to “dash” into on the way to an end point, and reach out-of-range locations by moving into allies and getting a boost, a technique called ‘team jump’. A variety of special abilities across characters allow you to perform actions such as increase weapon damage, scare enemies away from a location, and attack on enemy movement–a parallel to XCOM’s Overwatch ability. Altogether, the flexibility of how these abilities can be used and how they can be combined, as well as the reward incentive for exceptional performance, means that you’re pushed to perform elaborate team maneuvers every turn and take big, satisfying risks.

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You might use Rabbid Luigi to dash through an enemy and into cover (stealing health at the same time), finish them off with a shot from his Bworb weapon, and send Mario in to use Rabbid Luigi as a springboard to execute a team jump and stomp on the head of another enemy hiding behind cover, softening them up for a finisher with Mario’s hammer. Or, you could use Rabbid Mario’s Magnet Dance ability to draw three enemies closer together, use his movement ability to Boom Dash through them all before returning to safety, before switching over to Luigi and activating his Steely Stare ability to attack enemies on movement. Then, you can send in an explosive Sentry drone which bounces the group of enemies up into the air, whereby Steely Stare is activated and Luigi snipes–and eliminates–each enemy like a clay pigeon, proving himself as the cold-blooded deadshot he has always been. Finding opportunities to perform complex action strings like these and having them pay off is incredibly exhilarating, and it’s in these moments where Kingdom Battle is its best.

But these moments don’t happen all the time, and they’re not always worth the risk. Reaching these highs in battle is all the more sweeter since the combat design incorporates factors that constantly keeps you on your toes. Most cover is easily destroyed, for example, and a firing position you set yourself up in at the end of your last turn can just as easily be vapourised by the first enemy to act, leaving you completely exposed to follow-up attacks. Similarly, you could be hit by a weapon with a super effect, potentially setting you on fire and causing you to run out of cover like a maniac, or blocking your ability to perform certain actions.

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Enemy Rabbids can be highly aggressive and cunning, especially in later stages. Rabbid Smashers gain free movement and can potentially hurt your team with devastating attacks if you hit them during your turn. Rabbid Shield Bucklers can only be hurt from the side or from behind, but also pack a powerful weapons that shred through destructible cover and can bounce your team around the map, making it hard to get the upper hand. You could also be the cause of your own demise, since friendly fire is a factor, and powerful characters like Peach, Rabbid Mario, and Yoshi specialise in area-of-effect damage. Escort and traversal missions, as well as the handful of boss battles, introduce additional objectives to chase. On top of that, you’ll have to keep in mind the long cooldowns on secondary weapons and special abilities, as well as your party’s health status, which persists within a chapter–a close victory might mean using the same team members in the next fight puts you at a disadvantage. Kingdom Battle’s combat will have you agonising over every facet of every possible action during each of your turns, hoping you make it out okay enough to keep fighting, and well enough for a ‘Perfect’ grade to earn more coins and Power Orbs needed for upgrades.

Thankfully, agonizing is made easy because of the game’s clean combat interface and the clear communication of pertinent information. At a glance, you’re able to see the kinds of actions your team members still have available to perform in a turn. Full and half cover is clearly marked, and the visual design of the arenas makes it obvious what is and isn’t destructible. Kingdom Battle uses a numerical percentage system to denote the chance for an attack to make contact, but unlike its clearest inspiration, XCOM, the only numbers you’ll see are 0%, 50%, and 100%. This means you know what the hit outcome of your attack will be with confidence–including how much health you’ll take off and whether your attack will eliminate the enemy–or you’ll be completely certain that the outcome will be uncertain. There’s a larger variety of chance when it comes to inflicting status effects, but at no point will you throw your hands up in frustration because Princess Peach missed a 90% probability shotgun blast to a Rabbid’s stupid face.

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Kingdom Battle also features an incredibly useful tactical camera view, which can be used both before and during battle. Here, the camera pulls back and gives you an opportunity to better survey the landscape freely, and get precise information on the movement, abilities, and attack ranges of your foes. The game also gives you the option to completely redistribute character skill points on a whim, and restart a skirmish at any time–both without punishment. You might find yourself fighting a losing battle due to completely unsuitable team composition, but Kingdom Battle encourages you to experiment with different strategies by restarting the mission, re-surveying the battlefield, swapping out team members, and changing their strengths in order to suit the situation. The game offers an easy mode option that boosts your team’s health, but still demands the same tactical thinking. The result is that, despite its difficulty, Kingdom Battle radiates a feeling of encouragement much more than it does frustration in its mechanical design alone.

There’s another layer on top of that, though. Outside of the battles, you run Mario and friends through the silly, lighthearted world of a Mushroom Kingdom that’s been invaded by butt-scratching Rabbids and their slapstick antics, and spending time in this world is the perfect dose of positivity to keep you going after a tough fight. It’s the seamlessness of the world which gives Kingdom Battle its greatest feeling of character and place–exploration and puzzle segments blend into battle arenas, and a small checkpoint banner is the only distinction between stages. Each world feels like a huge, tangible location as a result. Mildly challenging environmental puzzles occasionally gate the way forward, but never halt the pace of events, and mainstays of Mario platforming games, such as red rings and coin rooms, provide the odd distraction every once in awhile. There are compelling reasons to go back and revisit worlds, too. Upon the completion of an area for the first time, you’ll unlock a new exploration ability and are invited to search previously inaccessible areas for chests and secret stages, as well as take on new challenge battles for additional rewards.

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There were some slight technical imperfections that occurred during our playthrough. Clipping would occasionally occur during scene transitions, and framerates would sometimes drop visibly in combat during cinematic action shots, especially those with a large amount of particle effects. On rare occasions, characters and enemies would become stuck, meaning we were forced to load from checkpoints and restart battles. But the sting of these problems was quickly forgotten, washed away by the attractive world, absorbing battles, and lovely orchestral reinterpretations of classic Mario themes.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle exudes off-beat optimism that never dissolves. It’s a consistent delight, no matter how challenging the road becomes, because Kingdom Battle’s unique turn-based tactics system is in every way a pleasure to engage with. Coupled with the annoyingly infectious allure of Rabbids, and the always delightful, colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an implausibly engrossing formula that is positively challenging and endlessly charming.

F1 2017 Review

Formula One has been stagnant in recent years. With the domination of the Mercedes team all but guaranteed since the beginning of the hybrid-era, new rules have injected some much needed spark into the once unquestioned pinnacle of motorsport. F1 2017 is a virtual reflection of that renewed vigor. The wider, faster and more aggressively styled cars are designed to be driven harder; a fundamental shift that brings with it a greater adrenaline-rush than any of the previous F1 games have managed to offer. Along with a greatly expanded career mode, a host of memorable classic cars and a litany of race options, championships and game modes to choose from, F1 2017 goes above and beyond expectations.

The bread and butter of the Codemasters F1 games has long been the career mode, which lets you create your own driver and guide them through their racing career, and F1 2017’s is no different. Aesthetically it’s been buffed out and expanded, adding new animations and team interactions, and showing off more of the infamous F1 paddock all while adding a grander sense to the occasion. For a series that had nailed the atmosphere of a Grand Prix some years ago, these additions add another layer that’s easy to appreciate.

The new upgrade system is another step up from last year, allowing you to focus your team’s R&D efforts on new parts in four key areas–chassis, aerodynamics, powertrain and durability. Where you decide to focus your points largely depends on who you drive for. Go with a team like McLaren and you’ll need to focus heavily on improving the woeful Honda power unit. Whereas for a top tier team like Red Bull or Ferrari, you might be more methodical about how you spend your resource points, focusing instead on areas you might be slightly weaker than your competitors. F1 2017 improves on past entries by being the most transparent entry in the series, giving you more than enough information to directly compare performance to your rivals.

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Resource points are earned over the course of a race weekend by meeting your team’s set qualifying and race objectives, as well as completing the practice programmes the team lays out for you in any given practice session. In addition to providing resource points for upgrades, the practice programmes also act as elaborate tutorials, teaching the finer arts of driving a modern Formula One beyond the basics of ‘the racing line’. More complex techniques like fuel and tyre management and determining race strategy are broken down into easily digestible chunks of information, making it easier for new fans to dig into what makes a race weekend so involved.

This level of strategizing extends to the car too, both in and out of the garage. F1 2017 tracks the wear and tear on each component of the engine and the gearbox, in line with real life rules to keep costs down for the smaller teams. Parts aren’t limited, but using more than your allotted amount will result in a grid drop penalty for each infringement. This means having to make tough but meaningful choices about whether to risk running worn parts for a race–leading to greatly reduced power or a possible outright failure–or taking the penalty and hoping you can fight your way back through the field.

When it comes to the look of the cars, they’re nothing short of exquisite. Each of the ten teams and their magnificent machines are modelled down to the finest details, with their sleek carbon-fibre bodywork lusciously reflecting the world around them. Likewise, the circuits themselves also show off the game’s excellent lighting and dynamic weather, which makes a return from previous games. The rare occasions where high-res textures take a moment to load in are a minor blemish on what is an otherwise stunning looking title.

Equally excellent is the feel behind the wheel. Be it with a wheel–which is absolutely the recommended way to play–or a gamepad, the cars feel as responsive as you’d hope. There is still more than enough power to make the back end slide out from under you, but unlike before, the wider tyres and extra downforce mean you can brake later, turn in harder, and get on the power earlier than ever before.

This is starkly reflected on track in the different handling and power of each car. Driving the McLaren-Honda down a long straight is nothing short of harrowing; other cars will power past you like you’re sitting still, forcing you to get your elbows out when trying to defend your position. On the other hand, both the Mercedes and Ferrari feel planted to the road straight out of the garage. The robust physics engine is backed up by some of the best racing AI in the business, who will fight hard for position and make mistakes, but also offer up plenty of racing room if you do manage to get a wheel alongside them.

The V10 roar of the 2002 Ferrari compared to the throaty growl of an old turbo-powered McLaren is enough to smack any nostalgic fan into bliss.

The inclusion of classic cars represents some of the best F1 machines from the last 30 years. From Senna’s 1988 McLaren to Vettel’s 2010 Red Bull, there are 12 cars in total, each of them a world championship winning car from their era. They wonderfully showcase the progression of the sport over the years, and the V10 roar of the 2002 Ferrari compared to the throaty growl of an old turbo-powered McLaren is enough to smack any nostalgic fan into bliss.

Jumping online to race with others is easier than previous years, doing away with the hoppers of old, opting for a more elegant approach. You choose your preference between shorter or longer races, get into a lobby and go. Also back is the online championship, letting you and your most dedicated friends battle it out over an entire season, with or without AI.

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Time Trials let you race against the leaderboards in any car, modern or classic, in any set of weather conditions. Events are a new feature for F1 2017, offering one-off, downloadable scenarios that drop you straight into the action then comparing your results to others via leaderboards when you’re done. Codemasters have left no wannabe racer wanting with the myriad ways to drive these cars.

Any gripes cast against F1 2017 are minor. Instant replays could last a bit longer, and the simulation damage model could be more detailed and less forgiving. But this list pales in comparison to what Codemasters have delivered, an F1 game that can truly cater for everyone–from sim racers to the newest casual fan.

Codemasters has been on a roll with its F1 series for a number of years now, and F1 2017 feels like the culmination of those years of work. Where F1 2016 lacked a little on the career side, F1 2017 more than makes up for that and then some more. An improved multiplayer set up, a greater variety of race options and straight-up better cars to drive, on top of the stellar career mode and thrilling on track racing experience make F1 2017 simply the best Formula One game ever made.

Distrust Review

Casper Jackson, one of the rescue members in the new isometric survival game Distrust, is having a hard time of it. He’s starving. He’s sleepy. His helicopter crashed. Along with a single survivor, he’s now stuck at a research base in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica outrunning aliens who’ve wiped out the local scientists, and at last the madness hits him.

“Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day and make me travel forth without my cloak,” he yells randomly to the uncaring elements.

Most people wouldn’t consider auto-recalling the specifics of Shakespeare’s 34th sonnet under extreme duress as insanity. But that’s how Distrust sees it, ranking it alongside violent outbursts and hearing voices as one of the conditions that haunt Casper and his fellow crew members. Your goal in Distrust is to keep all these conditions at bay while maintaining your satiety, stamina, and warmth across six randomized zones, all while digging through shelves, boxes, and piles of trash for clues and supplies. Fall asleep, and the aliens appear. And if you fail and let them catch you? If you starve, freeze, or just go bonkers? Game over. The aliens win. The randomization makes it maddeningly tough, even on the easier of its two modes, but it’s also entertaining once you slip into its rhythm.

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Antarctica is one of the few places left on earth where you know no one’s around to help you. H.P. Lovecraft understood its potential for horror, as did John Carpenter when making the 1982 film The Thing, from which Distrust draws heavily. But rather than body snatchers, aliens here are “anomalies,” which initially manifest themselves as glowy clouds akin to swarms of butterflies when you’re sleeping, or menacing black balls with a white corona, sort of like little solar eclipses on the run. They’re at their worst in their latter state, when they hunt you down and devour you by merely getting too close. More frightening incarnations eventually show themselves, but sadly, you’d be wrong to expect alien horrors of the sort that leaves you cranking up the lights to 150 watts.

The greatest horrors here are instead those that spring from the simple drive for survival, and usually to good effect. Even without aliens playing tag, your status bars for satiety, warmth, and stamina dwindle with every passing second, forcing quick lessons in multitasking and prioritization. Failure can be as simple as freezing to death, particularly if you stay outside too long without finding a well-insulated coat or run out of fuel for the facility’s furnaces. Even seemingly “safe” food can give you food poisoning if you lose one of Distrust’s many coin toss prompts, such as one that asks if you dare ignore a little mold on the edge of your noodle cup. Worse, your crew’s ridiculously accident-prone, as they cut themselves on all manner of crates and metal lockers, requiring precious bandages to patch up their carelessness.

Despite the repetitive sight of grey buildings and snowy backgrounds, repeat playthroughs of Distrust feel meaningfully different thanks to variety found elsewhere. There’s great variability in the crew itself. Your pick of two companions from a pool of three characters feels limited at the start, but quickly expands the offerings to 15 as you both tick off achievements and discover people lying unconscious within the facility. Some, like the Kurt-Russell-esque Olaf Haraldson, handle the cold better than their peers. Casper Jackson can outrun and outwalk everyone else. Some even come with helpful perks, like Irma Dillinger and her blessedly slow metabolism.

Pick the best two of the bunch, though, and you’ll likely still fail, and fail often. Like so many roguelikes, Distrust attempts to keep the inevitable repeated playthroughs interesting with randomized locations for assets like buildings, tools, and food. The catch? Distrust can feel unusually unbalanced in this regard. In some playthroughs, it practically shoves food and gear in your face, but you’re just as likely to wind up in an instance with little else besides spoiled food and a laughable absence of generator fuel.

Distrust complicates this already punishing setup further by insisting you manage other factors such as the the little madnesses mentioned above, as well as a strategy for killing anomalies by luring them into warm buildings (while they suck up your precious fuel at the same time). The madnesses and conditions themselves sometimes demand an excess of attention, particularly myopia, which prevents you from guiding the crew member to the other side of the map without steering him or her click by click. Match this with the mildly annoying camera, which doesn’t center on your heroes when you click their respective hotkeys, and you’ll find you’re losing too much time that would be much better spent guiding your other crew member to dig through safes and cabinets.

But if everything goes according to plan and you aren’t backed into an inescapable corner, you’re looking at a roughly six-hour playthrough. That may seems short, but chances are the vagaries of Distrust’s randomization will leaving you taking much longer to reach its end, and even after six hours you’ll feel as though you’ve survived a trial by fire. Victory is a warm feeling in this world of cold. As Casper might tell us in his Shakespeare-quoting reveries, the challenge makes crossing the finish line feel all the most rewarding, “lest light winning make the prize light.”

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Episode 3: More Than A Feeling Review

After two episodes raising interesting questions and establishing characters, Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy maintains the same momentum with Episode 3: More Than a Feeling. It starts out with flashback scenes that are well-suited to the Telltale style of storytelling, and the difficult decisions it asks you to make call back to previous episodes’ choices in engaging ways. However, it’s held back by inconsistent pacing and poorly executed exploration sections.

Thanks to the Eternity Forge, a relic with the ability to resurrect the dead, the Guardians have been experiencing visions and vivid memories of their pasts. The episode starts with a scene from Peter’s childhood, then shifts to one from Gamora’s life with her sister Nebula and Thanos. Seeing how Gamora and Nebula used to interact is intriguing, especially since you’re given a few choices in how to treat Nebula while in the memory. It’s also satisfying coming off of the previous episodes, where Gamora’s relationship with Nebula was positioned as conflict but lacked the context to be meaningful.

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Peter and Gamora then discover Mantis, a being connected to the Eternity Forge who has the ability to read people’s emotions. Mantis reveals that she has been using Peter’s memories of his mother to guide him to her–and that the Eternity Forge can either be given the power to resurrect anyone or destroyed forever. The choice lies in your hands: power up the Forge and resurrect Rocket’s lost love and Drax’s family, or destroy it at Gamora’s urging and prevent the revival of an evil army. This is the main conflict of the episode, and it’s not an easy choice to make.

Though there’s little action in Episode 3 whatsoever, the moral questions are enough to drive the story forward. Using Mantis’ power, Nebula shows you her side of the sisters’ troubled relationship through the same memory you saw from Gamora’s point of view. It’s one of the highlights of the episode; where I previously found it incredibly easy to side with Gamora in every situation, understanding her faults through Nebula’s eyes recentered me. That in turn made the choice to empower or destroy the Forge harder and far more weighty, since Gamora’s support wasn’t enough to make the decision for me.

Even with the right amount of intrigue, the pacing of the episode feels off. With one main conflict at its center, the episode feels empty in places, as if there should be more to do or more of Telltale’s characteristic choices to make. For an episode that deals with so much–and with such high stakes–it ends just as it’s ramping up in order to leave room for later episodes, which makes the two hours it takes to get there feel a bit slow and dull in retrospect.

That’s made more pronounced by a particularly aggravating exploration and investigation sequence that requires you to spam one command until you trigger the next scene–but this isn’t at all obvious just walking around and trying to figure out the solution. It takes way longer than it should, and it’s yet another instance in the series of the more “game”-like elements feeling out of place and intrusive.

Like the previous two episodes, Episode 3 of Guardians gains enough momentum with its most engaging relationships and story beats to carry itself forward. It continues to build upon its characters and gives meaning to its choices, but it also suffers from similar problems, including poor gamified sequences. A cliffhanger ending interrupts the excitement of the scene and ends up feeling forced, which is less intriguing after two prior episodes of manufactured suspense.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles spends its first fifteen minutes invoking memories of two of the best Zelda games. It opens on a boat, with your player-created character and a cartoony crew sailing through choppy seas, heading towards a distant island. It’s a scene reminiscent of The Wind Waker’s early moments, when Link and Tetra first set sail together. Soon enough the ship is wrecked, and you wash up on the shore of Gemea, the island nation the game is set across. After a brief tutorial the game offers a near-direct copy of Link’s emergence at the beginning of Breath of the Wild, as our character runs to a precipice and the camera pans back to reveal the wider world, the soundtrack underscoring the grandiosity of the moment.

It’s a bold move, but while the experience that follows invites comparisons to Breath of the Wild’s invitation to explore, Yonder plays very differently from Nintendo’s masterpiece. This is an extremely relaxed game, one with no combat, few puzzles to solve, and no danger of death at any point (you can ‘drown’ if you jump into deep water, but you’ll immediately spawn back on dry land with no repercussions). You’re placed on this island and given, for the most part, free reign: after the first few missions grant you all of the game’s essential tools you can either follow the main quest line or set out on your own path.

The plot is extremely thin–a darkness (called the “murk”) has spread over the world, and it’s up to you to get rid of it by completing a bunch of fetch quests. The murk doesn’t manifest as a threat, per se, and is instead used to justify the emptiness of the game world, which is filled with wonderful vistas but very few people to enjoy them. The islands of Gemea are loaded with quests, but the majority of them involve little more than gathering resources. Yonder is a game of exploration–the game world is sizable, and there is barely a ‘quick travel’ system, offering only a few unlockable warp points. The quests you pick up will usually guide you towards the part of the map you need to head to next, but figuring out how to get there–which paths to take up which mountains, which caves to traverse, which roads to take through which clearings–is on you. By the end of the game, you’ll likely find you have a much better sense of where things are, and how to get to them, than you usually do in open world games.

Along the way you’ll want to pick up anything not nailed down, so that when you find an NPC with a side quest there’s a good chance that you’ll already have the things they wanted you to gather (and if not, you’ll hopefully have enough to swap with a local merchant–the game has a barter economy). Some of these quests can be quite involved. One late in the game, for instance, asks you to collect a certain item from a cave, but to find that cave you’ll need to craft a bomb (it makes sense in context). To get the materials to make that bomb, you’ll need to first become a ‘brewer’, which requires that you head to another part of the map and complete a different quest to open up new crafting options. After that, you’ll get the recipe required to create the parts you need in the ‘crafting’ menu, which tells you exactly what you can build and what you’ll need to build it.

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This is one of the game’s more complicated quests, though, and most are far simpler. Yonder is not designed to be challenging. The main quest line is extremely short; tellingly, the trophy awarded to you for completing the final mission is called “That was easy”. This pace can actually be refreshing, but once that main quest is complete the appeal of having a beautiful island to wander around starts to wane. The side quests aren’t necessarily much fun, and the rewards for completing them are often intangible, offering little more than a sense of satisfaction that becomes less satisfying with each new item ticked off your quest list. Search the world high and low, uncovering its secrets, and it will rarely feel like the game world has actually changed in any way that matters, even after you’ve finished the game. Once you’ve seen everything and the appeal of exploration wears off, there’s little reason to push for 100% completion.

There’s a farming system, too, which lets you establish farm plots and generate income by housing livestock (if you walk up to an animal while you happen to have its favourite food in stock you’ll have the option of feeding it, and after that it’s yours). This could be the game’s deepest mechanic, but it feels weirdly inconsequential. Farms serve a practical purpose–they let you store resources, which is good when your backpack fills up–but farming is not exactly a deep experience, and it’s not going to pull anyone away from Stardew Valley.

Stopping to take in the sights is a major part of the Yonder experience.
Stopping to take in the sights is a major part of the Yonder experience.

Yonder is beautiful and relaxing, but only up to a certain point. It’s great for the first few hours, wandering around and discovering new sights, but the world ultimately leaves you wanting more depth and personality to explore. The NPCs you encounter aren’t fleshed-out characters, and the villages scattered throughout Gemea feel like veneers rather than actual locations–there are no building interiors, and very little sense of the lives being lived within them. Yonder is full of beautiful views, but while a distant mountain might be stunning, after a few hours it’s hard to get excited by what might be on the other side of it.

Yakuza Kiwami Review

Yakuza games do two things very well: grab you with dramatic stories and over-the-top characters, and make you laugh with oddball side missions that knowingly lean into their absurdity. The latest game, Yakuza Kiwami, is no exception. It’s gripping and funny, juvenile at times and self reflexive at others. It’s a difficult game to categorize, but its unbridled spirit is immediately identifiable, and acutely unapologetic.

Some people had their first taste of Yakuza when it debuted in 2005, and for them, Kiwami is a remake of the game that started it all. It is for the most part a straightforward recreation of the first Yakuza game, albeit with minor adjustments made to account for the current state of the series’ extended narrative and contemporary combat systems, but it’s largely a faithful adaptation where it counts.

For other people, Yakuza Kiwami is the follow-up to Yakuza Zero, the prequel that arrived earlier this year. Barring the Japanese-exclusive Samurai-themed spinoff Yakuza Ishin, Yakuza Zero is the first in the series’ current timeline, and the first Yakuza game on PlayStation 4, making it the perfect starting point for newcomers.

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Kiwami is a natural sequel for recent Yakuza inductees, despite its 2005 DNA. You travel the same streets of seedy Kamurocho–a play on Tokyo’s red-light district, Kabukicho–to right wrongs and protect the innocent. Chivalrous Yakuza idol Kazuma Kiryu remains in the spotlight, and though the world around him has gone through some technological and cultural growth, he’s still the same-old suited gangster with a furrowed brow, a heart of gold, and fists of fury.

Kamurocho is full of interesting sights and sounds: there are an array of restaurants, arcades, and clubs to visit. You can buy and sell miscellaneous goods at a pawn shop and stock up on energy drinks and alcohol at the many corner convenience stores. Kamurocho both a reflection and an exaggeration of Japanese cities, though it always errs on the side of amusement.

Kiwami’s primary story is heavy, defined by murder and betrayal, and while it can be wholly captivating, the game’s lighter pursuits provide necessary catharsis from your life of crime.

The game’s 13 chapters follow a familiar pattern, presenting a self-contained mini conflict that plays into the bigger picture with opportunities to explore the city between cutscenes. Kiwami generously provides waypoints for your next major objective, so you always feel comfortable setting main missions aside as they are easily picked back up again. But when you do, Kamurocho’s footprint is rather modest compared to contemporary open worlds, meaning you’re repeatedly sent to the same few locations over and over again. At some point, you grow weary of running to one corner of the map knowing full well that whomever awaits is just going to direct you elsewhere after the briefest of conversations.

It doesn’t help that you’re frequently interrupted with menial combat encounters along the way. Fights on the streets of Tokyo play out in an outdated beat-em-up format where stiff controls and swarms of enemies lead to frequent battles of attrition. And despite offering an impressive amount of character progression, which includes earning extremely violent takedowns as well as strategic maneuvers for your various fighting styles, Kiwami’s battles remain consistently underwhelming after the initial joys of brutalizing street toughs wears off.

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Though you don’t get to control Zero’s standout character, Goro Majima, this time around, he’s still a prominent part of the overall experience. Goro delights himself in picking fights with you to satisfy his own masochism and to help you regain atrophied skills after a stint in prison that occurs early on in Kiwami. Along with wonderfully weird side quests that pop up as you explore Kamurocho, these surprise events give exploration a sense of purpose. Kiwami’s primary story is heavy, defined by murder and betrayal, and while it can be wholly captivating, the game’s lighter pursuits provide necessary catharsis from your life of crime.

Beyond its lighthearted substories, Kiwami also offers a host of mini-games that can take hours to master. Many of these, such as darts and Mahjong, are straightforward and traditional experiences, and closely mirror Zero’s renditions. The same goes for the RC car races, bowling, and batting cages. Others pursuits such as the bikini-clad-women-cosplaying-as-bugs fighting game, are, well, essentially there for titillation, opting to be sexy rather than challenging. In this regard, Kiwami offers plenty of adult pursuits that aren’t shy about leaning into the game’s pervasive machismo.

Despite that combat remains more of a bump in the road than a rewarding pursuit, it’s a no-brainer for existing fans of the series, and shouldn’t be overlooked by newcomers, even if Zero passed them by.

This same lack of restraint can also be credited with Yakuza’s more prominent qualities. Cutscenes are often hyper-emotional exchanges backed by impassioned Japanese voice acting that, despite the language barrier, strike a chord. Likewise, Kiryu’s finishing moves in combat display a fair amount of creative delight in the unusual ways he’s able to take advantage of the environment and nearby props-turned-weapons. These don’t always turn a boring fight into an exciting one, but creative violence–along with far-out humor and sexy distractions–is part of the reason Yakuza games are uniquely exhilarating, despite the presence of obvious flaws.

Kiwami does a great job as both a remake of the original Yakuza game and as a sequel to Zero. Despite that combat remains more of a bump in the road than a rewarding pursuit, it’s a no-brainer for existing fans of the series, and shouldn’t be overlooked by newcomers, even if Zero passed them by. There’s nothing else quite like Yakuza, and Kiwami isn’t afraid to show it.

Madden NFL 18 Review

After almost 30 years, the Madden NFL series is rarely surprising. Fans think they know what to expect each year: a handful of small but meaningful mechanical tweaks, roster updates, and slight graphical bumps. Madden NFL 18, however, is highlighted by one of the most significant additions in series history–a full story mode–and a new, much more graphically capable engine. And due in large part to the Longshot story, it is a marked improvement over the last several entries in the series.

Madden has rarely tackled the personal side of football, choosing instead to present it as a chess-like competition: you are the coach and master, the players are your instruments to score. Of course, that’s not how football is treated in the real world, so to see that change in Madden is intriguing in theory, and gratifying in practice. For the first time in Madden, Longshot actually references how much so many people invest in the sport, and how high the stakes are for them. For instance, main character Devin Wade, the star football player from his small Texas town, quit his college team after a family tragedy. You navigate through Wade’s attempt to return to football, traveling to the NFL Combine in order to impress scouts.

Longshot is unexpectedly deep–it’s a fully fledged, Telltale-style adventure game with multiple endings, broken up by short moments of playing football. It presents you with decisions that affect both the people around you and the scouts’ perception of you. As with Telltale games, there’s an illusion of greater choice that isn’t necessarily there, but Longshot succeeds because it makes minor choices feel important. Do you reach for celebrity at the expense of Wade’s best friend, Colt Cruise? Or do you carry him along at the risk of running afoul of your coach and scouts who think Wade depends on him too much?

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For every moment that conveys Wade’s commitment, his inner demons, and his friendship with Cruise, there are corresponding moments of absurd spectacle. Wade’s journey from obscurity to superstardom unfortunately doesn’t take place entirely in intimate, personal story beats a la Friday Night Lights, but rather in the spotlights of a ridiculously excessive reality show. During these sequences and the challenges it presents him with, Wade evokes annoyance, confusion, and anger at the gaminess of the reality show. The executive producer hits every trope of an over-the-top, ratings-obsessed showrunner, and Wade grows disillusioned with the entire process. He was thrust into an absurd situation that was built to manufacture drama, so it makes sense that he would be upset.

These story sequences and their associated mini-games and challenges don’t fit well with the core narrative of two small-town football players trying to break into the NFL. Wade and Cruise don’t need extra drama to make them care about the sport, so why does the story give us a reality show, as if to suggest that the stakes aren’t high enough already?

Longshot is saved, however, by the quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie. It soars when its characters speak honestly about their love of the sport, and it nails the sense that football offers something bigger–a connection to a community, and a way to achieve greatness. Longshot’s numerous flashbacks to Wade’s time in high school and college show a relatable and deeply troubled character; the commentators for Wade’s high school games banter about the players that they, of course, know personally; and Wade, Cruise, and the whole state championship-winning team are treated as heroes in their town for years afterwards.

In spite of its issues, this first attempt at a story mode creates an excellent foundation for future iterations. Further, when you’ve finished Longshot, you can dive into Madden Ultimate Team to play through some of Devin Wade’s most memorable football scenarios.

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Madden Ultimate Team is undoubtedly Madden’s deepest mode, which has received a suite of updates to make it even more appealing to players. MUT tasks you with building a fantasy team from player cards (and yes, you can still buy packs of more powerful cards for real money). In Madden 18, you’ll get player cards representing Devin Wade, Colt Cruise, and other characters from Longshot, and forming a Longshot-focused MUT team will let you participate in around 30 challenges. Although these challenges are generally not much more than normal Madden scenarios with Longshot player models, they’re still entertaining enough to be worth playing.

But the main draw of MUT is multiplayer–and this year, you can team up with friends to take on others. Since Madden 25 launched in 2013, the series has conspicuously lacked any online cooperative team play. Madden 18’s MUT Squads finally reintroduces it. In the mode, one person plays as the offensive captain, one plays as the defensive captain, and one plays as the coach. It’s a welcome addition that gives players more options if they’re not interested in the solo competitive MUT modes.

On the field, Madden 18 looks beautiful. The game is the first in the series to use EA’s Frostbite engine, and as a result certain moments look nearly photorealistic. Stadiums feature minute details, while player models show everything from arm tattoos to jersey wrinkles. Stadium lighting is a particular high point; for example, afternoon sunlight–partly blocked by the stadium edges–filters down onto parts of the field and realistically illuminates players as they run into the light. The developer also comes closer than ever to finally eliminating the trademark dead eyes of Madden players. Eyes still look inhumanly glossy, but at least they move and are more detailed, and faces are more expressive.

The transition to Frostbite isn’t perfect, though. Outside of stadiums, environments generally look bland and featureless, especially during certain segments of Longshot. Additionally, with more human-like player movement comes some bizarre graphical bugs, such as a player’s leg clipping through his tackler’s chest, or two players getting hung up on each other as they try to stand up.

As with past Maddens, EA is trying to make sure that the game reflects real NFL events as much as possible, which means weekly roster and player stat updates. If a player is traded in real life, you can expect that to be represented in the game quickly. This year, EA has also added the “Play Now Live” mode, which has quickly become my favorite new feature in the game. This allows you to jump quickly into any of the week’s matchups, and both teams will reflect the actual lineups set to play. As a result, I was able to select last week’s preseason game between the Jaguars and Patriots, and it had already been set up with the correct time of day, stadium, and rosters. EA Tiburon has also introduced the ability to turn any Play Now Live game into a franchise, letting you jump into a full season immediately after completing a game. I was able to build upon my performance in that Jaguars-Patriots game without having to set it up in the Franchise mode menus. Even though Franchise Mode hasn’t received many updates from last year’s version, these starting points make it a whole lot easier and more enticing to play through an entire season.

As I progressed through my season with the Patriots, accruing both successes and failures, I noticed that the commentators started referring to events that had happened in past games–more so than in previous installments in the series. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis debuted as Madden commentators last year, and their rapport was already great then. They have returned in Madden 18 with even more back-and-forth dialogue, covering an impressive range of situations. Most notably, though, their commentary is full of context for both the game and the season. So, when my Patriots met the Dolphins in the Wildcard round of the playoffs, both teams with a 9-7 record, Davis and Gaudin discussed how the AFC East was a particularly weak division. They referenced the other teams in the playoffs and how they got there, and they called out events from earlier in the game. Further, EA promises it will continually update the Play Now Live commentary so that Gaudin and Davis refer to what is happening in the NFL.

Overall, Madden 18 marks an unusually large shakeup in a series that, due to its annualized releases, rarely features much more than small, iterative changes. The Frostbite engine allows the game to reach new levels of realism in its visuals, and EA has put a lot of effort into constantly evolving the game to keep it in line with real-world events. But it is the Longshot story mode that defines Madden 18. Some of Longshot is unnecessary spectacle, but its lasting value comes from the humanity that it brings to the game. The moments of vulnerability and sincerity between Devin Wade and Colt Cruise during the story are worthy of celebration and give the overall game a weight that Madden hasn’t had before. And if that’s not enough to entice you, it’s also simply a terrific football game.