Splatoon 2 Review

Splatoon 2 is easy to love. It's colorful and quirky and unafraid to be different, and it's consistently a blast to play. As far as shooters go, its unique movement mechanics stand out and make each match exciting. And while the logistics of its multiplayer aren't perfect, Splatoon 2 is a vibrant and exuberant sequel with enough fresh additions and changes to set it apart from the original.

Like the first game, Splatoon 2 stars human-squid hybrids called Inklings. Their world is bright and filled with nautical puns both spoken and implied, and even just walking around and picking out new clothes is delightful. The shoe store is called Shella Fresh, for example, and cute fish-themed decor peppers the hub area. That extends to the gameplay, of course; your weapons shoot (or sometimes fling) ink, and you can instantly change into your squid form and swim through ink puddles to reload. Swimming also has a stealth element to it, since you're harder to see and faster, and therefore better equipped for surprise attacks. You can also ink walls and swim up them in squid form, which adds to your verticality in matches. In the standard multiplayer mode Turf War, you're tasked with inking more of the map than your opponents while also "splatting" them to limit their progress.

Multiplayer is undoubtedly the main draw of Splatoon 2, but both new and returning players should absolutely try the new-and-improved single player mode before jumping into any matches. Unlike in the first game, where you could only use the standard Splattershot gun in the campaign, Splatoon 2's serves as a fantastic introduction to all the basic weapon types you'll have access to--and it's much more robust, with collectibles that require a sharp eye to find and creative platforming challenges that really showcase how unique Splatoon 2's movement is for the shooter genre. And while it starts out a bit basic, each level builds on the last and requires clever application of your knowledge to complete. Grinding on rails while shooting targets, then switching to your squid form and successfully landing a tricky jump is satisfying not just because it's fun and cool but because it really feels like you've mastered Splatoon 2's new mechanics.

Unfortunately, not all of the single player campaign's lessons make it into the multiplayer. Most notably, rail grinding, which is the standout from single player, isn't possible on Moray Towers' rails. That in particular feels like a missed opportunity, especially since that map is returning from the first game. However, getting to use a wide variety of weapons in single player makes the transition to multiplayer easier, and subtle tweaks to weapons and gear, like faster movement with the roller, add a layer of new strategy for veteran players. On top of that, the majority of the maps are new, and favorites include Inkblot Art Academy and The Reef, both of which have several vertical levels that result in intense struggles for control of the higher ground.

The only multiplayer mode for non-ranked matches is Turf War, which is consistently so much fun that only having one casual mode isn't really a problem. Covering the most ground with your ink is a simple enough concept, but skillful movement, well-timed inking, and the right strategy for your weapon all work together to give each match more depth. There are some wrinkles with the logistics of these regular battles: there's no way to change your weapon once you're in a lobby, so you're stuck with whatever team composition you get, and you can't guarantee you'll be on the same team as any friends who join your lobby. But, as the most laid-back of the multiplayer options, Turf Wars' quick games and random team assignments make it easy to jump in and out and have fun without too much pressure. It might be frustrating when your team of randoms doesn't seem to know what they're doing, but the fast-paced struggle to cover turf with your team's ink is as exhilarating as ever.

Ranked battles return with Tower Control, Rainmaker, and Splat Zones. Each mode is similar to game types you might be familiar with in other team shooters; Tower Control consists of escorting a tower to a goal, Rainmaker is like reverse capture the flag, and Splat Zones requires you to "control" specific areas for a certain amount of time by covering them with your team's ink. Unfortunately, the lobbies for ranked matches haven't been populated enough for us to play them ahead of launch, but based on our experience with the first game, we can expect these modes to work essentially the same way. Splatoon's ink mechanics make these modes feel different from other games, and the focus on specific objectives is great for competitive players who want something more than the informal structure of Turf War.

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There's also a new co-op mode called Salmon Run that lets you play alongside one to three friends in a horde environment. It's surprisingly challenging and requires more strategy and finesse than Turf War by far. Even on lower difficulties, my groups struggled against minibosses that require specific strategies to take out--they're less threatening than the single-player bosses but hard to deal with in high volumes. Successfully clearing the waves was satisfying knowing that we had to have worked well as a team in order to survive. In addition to the updated single-player campaign, this is another mode that shows off what's so great about Splatoon 2's unique gameplay in ways that PvP multiplayer doesn't.

The biggest problems with the original Splatoon's multiplayer were limited matchmaking and a lack of voice chat, which made team strategy extremely cumbersome and difficult. While regular battles still lack shooter matchmaking mainstays like parties, there's a new mode called League Battle that lets you group up with either one or three other friends and play together in a more competitive environment. League battles include the same modes as ranked but don't affect your solo rank, which is a great option if your skills aren't quite in line with your friends'. That said, voice chat is still a problem--you have to use a phone app to communicate, which is inelegant at best and ridiculous for a modern team-based game. There's no good reason it couldn't have been included in-game.

At first glance, Splatoon 2 seems very similar to the first game. But all the small changes, and even the bigger ones in single player and League Battles, make for a fresh take on the already unique shooter. If you played a lot of the original, the sequel has enough to keep you coming back, and if you're new to the game, it's a fantastic place to jump in.

Splatoon 2 Review

Splatoon 2 is easy to love. It's colorful and quirky and unafraid to be different, and it's consistently a blast to play. As far as shooters go, its unique movement mechanics stand out and make each match exciting. And while the logistics of its multiplayer aren't perfect, Splatoon 2 is a vibrant and exuberant sequel with enough fresh additions and changes to set it apart from the original.

Like the first game, Splatoon 2 stars human-squid hybrids called Inklings. Their world is bright and filled with nautical puns both spoken and implied, and even just walking around and picking out new clothes is delightful. The shoe store is called Shella Fresh, for example, and cute fish-themed decor peppers the hub area. That extends to the gameplay, of course; your weapons shoot (or sometimes fling) ink, and you can instantly change into your squid form and swim through ink puddles to reload. Swimming also has a stealth element to it, since you're harder to see and faster, and therefore better equipped for surprise attacks. You can also ink walls and swim up them in squid form, which adds to your verticality in matches. In the standard multiplayer mode Turf War, you're tasked with inking more of the map than your opponents while also "splatting" them to limit their progress.

Multiplayer is undoubtedly the main draw of Splatoon 2, but both new and returning players should absolutely try the new-and-improved single player mode before jumping into any matches. Unlike in the first game, where you could only use the standard Splattershot gun in the campaign, Splatoon 2's serves as a fantastic introduction to all the basic weapon types you'll have access to--and it's much more robust, with collectibles that require a sharp eye to find and creative platforming challenges that really showcase how unique Splatoon 2's movement is for the shooter genre. And while it starts out a bit basic, each level builds on the last and requires clever application of your knowledge to complete. Grinding on rails while shooting targets, then switching to your squid form and successfully landing a tricky jump is satisfying not just because it's fun and cool but because it really feels like you've mastered Splatoon 2's new mechanics.

Unfortunately, not all of the single player campaign's lessons make it into the multiplayer. Most notably, rail grinding, which is the standout from single player, isn't possible on Moray Towers' rails. That in particular feels like a missed opportunity, especially since that map is returning from the first game. However, getting to use a wide variety of weapons in single player makes the transition to multiplayer easier, and subtle tweaks to weapons and gear, like faster movement with the roller, add a layer of new strategy for veteran players. On top of that, the majority of the maps are new, and favorites include Inkblot Art Academy and The Reef, both of which have several vertical levels that result in intense struggles for control of the higher ground.

The only multiplayer mode for non-ranked matches is Turf War, which is consistently so much fun that only having one casual mode isn't really a problem. Covering the most ground with your ink is a simple enough concept, but skillful movement, well-timed inking, and the right strategy for your weapon all work together to give each match more depth. There are some wrinkles with the logistics of these regular battles: there's no way to change your weapon once you're in a lobby, so you're stuck with whatever team composition you get, and you can't guarantee you'll be on the same team as any friends who join your lobby. But, as the most laid-back of the multiplayer options, Turf Wars' quick games and random team assignments make it easy to jump in and out and have fun without too much pressure. It might be frustrating when your team of randoms doesn't seem to know what they're doing, but the fast-paced struggle to cover turf with your team's ink is as exhilarating as ever.

Ranked battles return with Tower Control, Rainmaker, and Splat Zones. Each mode is similar to game types you might be familiar with in other team shooters; Tower Control consists of escorting a tower to a goal, Rainmaker is like reverse capture the flag, and Splat Zones requires you to "control" specific areas for a certain amount of time by covering them with your team's ink. Unfortunately, the lobbies for ranked matches haven't been populated enough for us to play them ahead of launch, but based on our experience with the first game, we can expect these modes to work essentially the same way. Splatoon's ink mechanics make these modes feel different from other games, and the focus on specific objectives is great for competitive players who want something more than the informal structure of Turf War.

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There's also a new co-op mode called Salmon Run that lets you play alongside one to three friends in a horde environment. It's surprisingly challenging and requires more strategy and finesse than Turf War by far. Even on lower difficulties, my groups struggled against minibosses that require specific strategies to take out--they're less threatening than the single-player bosses but hard to deal with in high volumes. Successfully clearing the waves was satisfying knowing that we had to have worked well as a team in order to survive. In addition to the updated single-player campaign, this is another mode that shows off what's so great about Splatoon 2's unique gameplay in ways that PvP multiplayer doesn't.

The biggest problems with the original Splatoon's multiplayer were limited matchmaking and a lack of voice chat, which made team strategy extremely cumbersome and difficult. While regular battles still lack shooter matchmaking mainstays like parties, there's a new mode called League Battle that lets you group up with either one or three other friends and play together in a more competitive environment. League battles include the same modes as ranked but don't affect your solo rank, which is a great option if your skills aren't quite in line with your friends'. That said, voice chat is still a problem--you have to use a phone app to communicate, which is inelegant at best and ridiculous for a modern team-based game. There's no good reason it couldn't have been included in-game.

At first glance, Splatoon 2 seems very similar to the first game. But all the small changes, and even the bigger ones in single player and League Battles, make for a fresh take on the already unique shooter. If you played a lot of the original, the sequel has enough to keep you coming back, and if you're new to the game, it's a fantastic place to jump in.

Diablo 3: Rise Of The Necromancer Review

It had me at “you can blow up corpses.” Rise of the Necromancer provides a fantastic new character class for Diablo III in a dark wizard who loves the dead as much as Alice Cooper. As such, this downloadable content provides a reason for dedicated fans of Blizzard’s hack-and-slasher to revisit the game, and it even offers a little nudge for newbies to finally get with it and play one of the best action RPGs of all time. There’s one important caveat, though--all you get here is the new necromancer class and his undeadly accoutrements.

Still, playing as the necromancer offers an entertaining new way to experience the original Diablo III while also reviving a beloved character from Diablo II. This goth-inspired sorcerer stands out from other Diablo III classes thanks to his grim appearance and incredible battlefield abilities. The necromancer is an absolute powerhouse right from the start of the game, courtesy of a host of skills that let you wreak havoc. Soon after you start your adventure, you'll have a troop of skeleton warriors trotting by your side, slicing and dicing all comers while you hang back and raise the corpses they left behind as makeshift grenades via your Corpse Explosion skills. Detonating the bodies of fallen foes is endlessly satisfying, because of both the geysers of gore and how you can chain explosions, slaughtering huge numbers of enemies in strings of kabooms.

And the necromancer doesn’t just excel at blowing up corpses. A wide range of skills allow for varied playstyles; you can also let summoned skeletons and spirits do the heavy lifting while you use the Siphon Blood talents to leech enemy health and restore your own. You can wade right into melee combat or take a step back and fire off the ranged Bone Spikes or swing the mystical Grim Scythe. The Necromancer also offers some frills that allow you to sport big skeletal wings, don a custom portrait, have ghoulish pets scampering at your heels, and use over 30 new legendary items.

In short, this is a great character pack. The necromancer comes with a lot of depth and seems well thought-out. The one lingering concern is that the new class might be a little overpowered, but that’s a minor worry, given that most players will be using the goth-and-guts spellcaster for a runthrough of what’s likely a very familiar campaign in a game they know extremely well. Challenge probably isn’t as big a concern as novelty and the sheer fun factor the new character brings. The visual presentation is also extremely well done, offering a perfect balance between cartoon showers of blood and the dark grotesqueries of playing as a guy who revels in death.

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But it’s still just a character pack. Despite the title, Rise of the Necromancer doesn’t offer any new quests, campaigns, or storylines. The name is more than a bit misleading, since it leads you to expect that there’s a little more (rotting) meat on this (animated and coming right at you) bone. And for $15, you’re right to expect more. The one slight saving grace when it comes to value is that the DLC arrives at the same time as the free 2.6.0 patch, which adds features to the core game like Challenge Rifts, new zones, and new bounties.

If not for the price, Rise of the Necromancer would be easy to instantly recommend to fans of Diablo III or anyone with even a passing interest in trying out a classic hack-and-slash RPG. Still, this is a fantastic character pack that adds one of the best, most enjoyable classes to the existing game roster.

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood Review

While Final Fantasy 14's expansion Heavensward brought a tide of questions about the MMORPG’s longevity, there was far less community concern with Stormblood. In fact, Early Access was so popular that the servers couldn’t handle everyone who had shelled out to catch a glimpse of Ala Mhigo, and some fans were locked out of touching any of the new content until a few days into the release. However, any discontent there hasn’t damaged the expansion’s reputation all that much--servers have never been this full, and the reason is pretty simple: Final Fantasy XIV has never been this good.

There was a long slog between A Realm Reborn and Heavensward that was the bane of every player who joined late in the game. Notably, there was a lot of grumbling about the fact that Heavensward's new classes were locked behind a wall of Main Story Quests. Thankfully, this restriction does not exist in Stormblood. New players have the option of purchasing a single-use leveling boost with expedited access to new content, as well as scenario boosts which allow players to skip both A Realm Reborn’s and Heavensward’s storyline, enabling you to jump into current content without a care in the world. While those boosts capitalise on convenience in terms of leveling, you miss out on entire swathes of narrative and early-game combat experience. Mastering your class is central to playing effectively at higher levels, and you won’t get that experience without doing the hard yards.

Stormblood is captivating and dramatic from the get-go, with a somber narrative that retains the dramatism that has been a hallmark of the franchise. There are some incredibly harrowing moments in the story, and it is adept at positioning players to ask uncomfortable questions about war. A conflict with the Garleans has been brewing for decades, and it plays out in dramatic fashion in Ala Mhigo; a symbol of resistance and a brutally colonised city-state. A Realm Reborn introduced you to the plight of the Ala Mighans, and their abuse at the hands of the Garleans reaches an exciting boiling point at the very start of Stormblood. The threats in Stormblood are readily apparent and eager for blood, and the series finally introduces villains that don’t exist solely to be hated. The narrative very quickly notes the realities of life under colonialism, and blurs the lines between righteousness and cruelty.

Hot goddess? Check. Murderous snakewomen? Check. Bad idea? Check.
Hot goddess? Check. Murderous snakewomen? Check. Bad idea? Check.

But don’t fret, it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the main attractions of Stormblood is the ability for you to swim and dive in the beautiful blue seas dotting Eorzea, Final Fantasy XIV's setting. There’s a whole new world under the sea that players have never been able to experience until now, along with a variety of fishing quests and swimsuit glamours for the occasion. Flying mounts will be able to swim underwater, and you have the option of using Striped Rays to travel between certain hubs thanks to some creative side quests. Swimming has been worked seamlessly into the existing landscapes, allowing you to enjoy everything from floating in well-loved haunts like Costa del Sol to discovering a cursed palace at the bottom of the ocean.

The new zones have a distinctly Asian flavour, and are well-integrated with their accompanying main story quests and side quests. As was the case with Heavensward, unlocking the ability to fly in each region is dependent on finding the right aether currents. However, you do get mount speed increases much earlier on, so seeing everything at ground-level isn’t as tedious as it used to be. There have been a host of other improvements to the game, notably in the form of incentivising players to take part in optional content such as Fates, which offer rewards ranging from adorable minions to limited edition furniture and glamours--perfect for when the new housing district opens. Not to be outdone, there’s been a proliferation of bigger, badder beasts to hunt as well as chains of Fates with their own isolated narratives to enjoy.

Singing the song of the sea.
Singing the song of the sea.

Out of all the changes, though, the most jarring is the way that classes were altered in the lead-up to Stormblood. There has been a huge overhaul of jobs, which sees cross-class skills being done away with in favour of skills specific to roles. This, in turn, means you don't need to invest in a number of off-classes to acquire these skills. It has taken some time for people to become familiar with the changes, and this can lead to a number of unfortunate early encounters because as a returning player, it can be difficult to get abreast of everything new. Trials are already known for being mechanically demanding at the recommended level, and the fact that they make up a decent chunk of Main Story Quest content leads to some overly frustrating queues and wipes if the party isn't completely acclimatised. However, bosses and their respective lore colour their encounters even more strongly in Stormblood than previous expansions, and the introduction of an unconventional duty that requires puzzle-solving instead of combat injects great variety into the proceedings.

In terms of how the classes fare now, the new Samurai and Red Mage feel like they have yet to be balanced. Red Mages are the cream of the crop when it comes to damage, and their high-mobility style of combat allows for an exhilarating mix of melee and ranged skills. Samurai is an incredibly strong class, and their abilities involve balancing and converting between multiple resources to sustain consistent DPS and to stick doggedly to a target. Notable skill additions to glam up the other roles include Rescue for healers, a Leap of Faith-type skill that lets you save a stubborn party member when they’re in over their head; Shirk for tanks, allowing you to divert your aggro to someone else; Peloton for ranged DPS, letting you breeze through low-level duties that much faster, and Mana Shift for casters, allowing you to give 20% of your precious MP to a struggling party member.

The face that launched a thousand party wipes on Ex.
The face that launched a thousand party wipes on Ex.

Stormblood is a hefty expansion, and while getting from Level 60 to 70 isn’t a complete slog, the entire campaign from start to finish will likely take about 50 hours if you’re filling in the storyline with side quests and exploring the beautiful landscapes. You’ll probably want to get more than one class to Level 70 as you wait for the first raids to drop, and there’ll be ample time to do so. If the final fight of Stormblood’s story was anything to go by, expectations for the new Savage difficulties on the horizon are also high. There are some annoying post-launch issues regarding instanced areas, as well as a new policy of kicking players in high-population worlds at peak times. However, Stormblood has already gone above and beyond the experience delivered in Heavensward, and there’s no doubt that Final Fantasy XIV now has the content and longevity it needs to keep players engaged.

Rakuen Review

Hospitals are emotionally complicated places, especially if you have to stay longer than a trip to the emergency room. It might be nosy, but when you're surrounded by other patients, bored in curtained-off rooms, it's natural to wonder about your neighbors--and worry about them, too. It's not always easy to tell who's on the mend or the decline, but you feel connected to them through the shared environment, often filling in the gaps of their story with your imagination to pass the time.

It's this feeling, this sense of a web of individual stories connected by pristine white hallways and the persistent smell of hand sanitizer, that Rakuen chooses as its stage. You take on the role of an ill boy confined to a hospital and kept company by his mother. Unlike nearly every other character introduced, their names and backgrounds are withheld. In their minds, their story isn’t the most interesting one in the building. Not compared to the man down the hall who can't remember where he is, or the little girl with the sullen face and a big jar of marbles at her bedside.

The tales of every other patient, not to mention the hospital itself, are woven into a fabled, storybook world, the titular Rakuen. Forged in the minds of the mother and her son during bedtime stories, the bright, pastel-hued setting is populated with a variety of creatures. The most important one, a slumbering forest spirit who can grant the boy a wish, compels you to search for the missing verses of a rousing melody. The boy and his mother explore Rakuen in search of this song and solve problems for a cast of characters that are based on other patients in the hospital. There's no combat to speak of--just a map opened up, bit by bit, through straightforward puzzle-solving and story progression.

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The real world and magical realm interact with each other in a way that makes it difficult to discern how much of it is really intended as metaphor, and Rakuen doesn't exactly strain to define that boundary. The question of whether or not this magic is real, whether or not the boy and his mother are stepping into another world, whether or not the problems resolved for the catlike creatures on the other side actually bear out in real life is left more or less unanswered.

Video games have a lot of good examples of dads taking the spotlight, but moms are still a little harder to come by in the medium. Even if that weren’t the case, the mother in Rakuen would still undoubtedly stand out. She’s so much more than an accessory to her son's story--and so much more than a passive companion to the player. Some of the game's most exceptional moments are her moments, and they take what might have been a trite, predictable set of story twists and render them impactful and important again. Without her presence, Rakuen wouldn't be half the story it is.

Rakuen--the place--is sweet and idyllic, full of clever details and locations that are cozy and comforting, and it matches the hopeful tone of the story well. But unavoidable shades of sadness and fear are present, too, and a stripe of a haunting, uneasy, not-quite-horror-but-damn-close aesthetic runs through the game to drive that aspect home. It strikes a good balance, offering well-timed reminders that no one can hide from reality between the pages of a book forever.

As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome.

The beauty of the artwork only makes the limited resolution options in the game all the more disappointing. Your can either play Rakuen fullscreen with the artwork stretched and looking rough, or you can opt for a very small window at the game's native resolution. Given that Rakuen was made in RPG Maker, this is an issue that isn't surprising given the outdated nature of the engine, but that doesn't make it any less unsatisfying.

As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome. Much of the world is gated behind the gradual acquisition of new tools and abilities, so the tedious movement will likely stifle your curiosity and dissuade you from poring over every part of the environment.

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Unfortunately, there are also occasions when the rules for interacting with the world become lax without warning, creating undue confusion in the process. You might get stuck early on if you fail to realize that you can walk through a barrier made of caution tape. It doesn't break, and you don't need to duck or otherwise interact with it--you just walk through it somehow. Moments like this aren't uncommon, and while far from game-breaking, they blur conceptions of rules and logic that normally go hand in hand with puzzle solving.

For the first hour, nuisances like the one described above rise to the top, even so far as to overpower Rakuen's striking aesthetic. But shortly thereafter, when music becomes central to the story, your grievances begin to fade and you settle back into the world's charms. Rakuen's soundtrack (particularly the vocal tracks, many of which developer Laura Shigihara performs herself) will catch you off guard. Individual tracks act as stirring, truly endearing rewards for completing sections of the story. And when the game's theme music swells, and you finally to piece together the song you've been working towards all along, waking up the forest spirit feels like a genuine resolution.

There's no denying that Rakuen has some incredibly strong components. At the same time, it's hard to shake its more basic shortcomings, be it the technical limits of its engine or the plodding exploration. Its most brilliant and glowing scenes stand out and stick with you, but Rakuen remains just a dose or two short of healthy.

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age Review

The Final Fantasy series has always been about reinvention, and the twelfth incarnation embodies this to such an extreme, that you might catch yourself wondering if this is a really a game from the long-running RPG franchise at all. Not only is it deserving of the name, but it's an RPG through and through, where monster hunting and exploration of spacious locales effectively feed into its stat-based progression within an ensemble cast of colorful personalities. Like its predecessors, Final Fantasy 12 puts its own spin on how chocobos, summons, and characters named Cid play into its epic journey. With its long awaited remaster ready for release, Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age puts its best foot forward with a wealth of improvements and changes, delivering a fresh experience even if you've memorized the path from The Phon Coast to The Tomb of Raithwall.

For those who thoroughly enjoyed the PS2 version of Final Fantasy 12, The Zodiac Age is not only a remaster, but also a remix. Keen eyes will notice subtle tweaks to enemy locations and even changes to the selection of merchant goods. Some of these modifications are in service to the character-enhancing License Board, which itself has been overhauled from the original game in order to give each party member more distinctive jobs and abilities. Along with the inclusion of a Japanese voice track and improved loading times, the option to toggle between the original and reorchestrated versions of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s exquisite soundtrack is a welcome feature. Lastly, the improved high definition visuals brings out a fetching painterly look to the characters' faces. As a PlayStation 4 exclusive, The Zodiac Age stands out as a feature-rich rerelease on a platform with a bountiful selection of lesser remasters.

Even if it were an untouched port, Final Fantasy 12 would stand out for its distinct handling of familiar elements. For instance, there's a thriving society centered around hunting, a gig economy where skilled fighters of many races vanquish the game world's most hostile creatures. Being recognized and awarded for taking down bounties effectively weaves a part of FF12's story with any player motivation to complete the bestiary. Equally notable is the emphasis on thievery, which is also narratively tied to the resourceful nature of Vaan, one of the playable characters. You won't go far if you relied solely on money from defeated monsters and treasure chests. Riches instead come from the sales of loot you acquire from the creatures you take down. Much like Final Fantasy 9's Zidane, Vaan's stealing skills helps players develop an appreciation for the series' long line of talented but sometimes overlooked thieves.

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Further driving the distinctiveness of Final Fantasy 12 is its setting of Ivalice, an established universe with its origins outside of the core series. And like other games based in Ivalice, specifically Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, 12's plot often feels like a middle chapter of a grander tale yet to be told. It's so rich in backstory that keeping track of names and places during the initial hours can feel overwhelming, though the further you play, the easier it is to get a handle of the intricacies of the lore. What you really need to know at the start is two small kingdoms, Dalmasca and Nabradia, are caught in the crossfire of two larger warring empires, Rozarria and Archadia. Of the countless individuals affected by this period of upheaval, six characters--all of whom come from vastly different backgrounds-- form your party, uniting for a common cause to de-escalate this continent-wide conflict.

Perpetuating this middle episode vibe are the playable characters themselves, who have been appropriately compared to the cast of Star Wars: A New Hope. As examples, Ashe is the captured princess and Basch is the former general in hiding. Balthier is the self-serving pirate with a price on his head and his partner, Fran, has been described as Sexy Chewbacca. Their intertwined backstories and resulting encounters allow for chemistry and conflict as the often engaging narrative unfolds.

Reinforcing Final Fantasy 12's timelessness, The Zodiac Age brings in an enhanced Gambit battle system, which itself felt ahead of its time upon its first release. By stringing together a prioritized series of if/then commands for each character, battles unfold with a semi-automated flow where you can vanquish beasts without pressing a button for minutes on end. The immensely user friendly interface fittingly looks and feels like a Fisher-Price styled introduction to programming, where each player-chosen behavior is simply assigned a specific target, whether it be an ally, themselves, or a single enemy.

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One would think that the hands-free aspects of The Gambit System would deprive you of agency and engagement but it in fact creates the opposite result. Since you're still responsible for every character's actions, the thrill of seeing your handiwork unfold and emerging victorious never gets old. It allows for experimentation and risk-taking but The Gambit System truly shines when you stick to sensible and tried-and-true RPG battle tactics. Remember all those times you died in battle because you ignored a status ailment and thought you could get one last attack in instead? This system removes all manner of impulsiveness and for many, offers a glimpse of the RPG combatant one aspires to be, free of impetuous behaviors.

You don't get your hands on this system in earnest until three hours in, which is one hour too many. Yet this onboarding period is notably improved over the original game thanks to the option to double or even quadruple the speed of play. This is just one of the many new features that makes The Zodiac Age ever more engrossing. In a game that features respawning enemies, every hostile area becomes more inviting. You're motivated by growing your party's stats at an accelerated pace even after you've explored every corner and opened every treasure chest in a given region.

While its enhancements do not translate into a brand new game for existing fans, The Zodiac Age is nonetheless invigorating. For an experience that can last over a hundred hours, the subtle tweaks therein go a long way in showcasing Final Fantasy 12's grand trek in a new light. Its epic, lore-abundant story and its time-tested Gambit System should also appeal to those who missed out on the mainline series' trip to Ivalice the first time around. And thanks in part to the new audio and speed options, The Zodiac Age is an ideal definitive edition: one that improves the game over its original version across the board.

The Mage's Tale Review

Virtual reality is in a bit of a tough spot. While the medium has enjoyed a lot of mainstream visibility of late, few VR games have actually found broad success. The Mage's Tale is meant to be Oculus' new tentpole--a robust virtual-reality adventure that will sell us all on the magic of the technology and the ever-elusive sense of "presence." Unfortunately, The Mage's Tale is a fractured adventure packed with minor technical oddities, poor voice work, and shallow dungeon crawling.

The tale opens with the kidnapping of your master at the hands of an evil sorcerer, and you, the lowly apprentice, must embark on a rescue mission. It’s every bit as hackneyed as it sounds. Making the opening even less appealing, the mage's familiar--an obnoxious magical creature that's along for the ride--immediately berates you for your incompetence. Unfortunately, he's your teacher, carrying you down the path of learning the skills and spells you'll need to exact vengeance.

That's the core appeal here, too: crafting spells and using them within a virtual space. That portion, at least, works well. The Oculus Touch controllers temporarily create the sensation that you're in control of magic, momentarily fulfilling dream of being whisked away to star in your own mythical adventure. Thanks to solid motion controls in VR, actions are intuitive: you grab potions and knock away obstacles with your hands, you look around as you would in the real world, and there's even a nifty menu system based on the positions of your hands that sells the illusion that you're a real wizarding student.

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As you explore dungeons, you find various items to boost or augment your spells (one mod causes your fireballs to bounce around the room) to add some variety. It's meant to create the sense that you're learning magic and genuinely exploring and crafting new ideas or techniques on your own instead of simply following the rote, by-the-book rules you've learned up to that point. Some mods, like one that lets you guide spells remotely, change some functionality. But even then, their application doesn't meaningfully alter gameplay. A fireball is a fireball, essentially. It doesn’t help that many are cosmetic too, adding little more than confetti and flair to your casting. By the end of an 11-hour run, the rudimentary spell variety more than takes its toll.

Even worse, movement during combat is a drag. Dodging is one-note--you'll be bouncing between two or three positions as you evade incoming spells and arrows from fantastical goblins and the like--and each time you do, you suddenly appear in a new spot. Immediately. This avoids the common VR problem with motion sickness--due to artificial locomotion via a joystick--but only for a time. Whenever combat really gets going (which, in this case, could be two or three enemies in the room all attacking at once), you're like a walking glitch, stuttering through the world. It trades the immediate discomfort of gradual movement for the more disorientating and equally unsettling feeling of constantly appearing in and out of existence in different places.

The actual dungeons don't fare much better. There are ten different environments, yet they never feel distinct despite unique layouts and enemy types. Puzzles are remarkably similar, for example. Often you'll enter a room, and you'll need to kill some enemies and find a switch. Flip the switch, and the door opens. That's not all of it, certainly; one puzzle tasks you to align symbols around the room to match those found on a wall that revealed with a magical MacGuffin, but that's also not too far removed from Skyrim's "rotate these columns to match the door, then pull the lever"--just in virtual reality. That novelty works a few times, but it wears painfully thin by the end.

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If there's one element of The Mage's Tale that shines, it's (occasionally) the dialogue. But even that comes with qualifications. You'll bump into some silly situations that play with the absurdity of the world from time to time. Talking walls are a staple, and they usually have weird problems. One wall seemed perplexed by the very existence of humans, and was annoyed by my zipping about (walls don’t tend to move much, after all). Another was drowning due to a flood, and tried to drink enough water to save himself, but ultimately needed my magic to drain the water. They (alongside your master's familiar) form the bulk of the characters you'll meet.

The walls are delightful and cute, serving as a solid underpinning for the game's absurdist humor. The familiar, however, isn't--and, unfortunately, he's far more omnipresent. He follows you and complains about absolutely everything. And not just in the normal plucky sidekick way--his vitriol is crafted to get under your skin and goes well beyond excessive. He ruins almost every puzzle by explaining it and then calling you an idiot for not understanding. It is the worst kind of artificial humor: a dry cynicism that masquerades as cleverness and wit.

Neither a groundbreaking VR experience nor a strong dungeon crawler, The Mage's Tale ultimately squanders its potential. It offers a couple of high points--some jokes do hit their marks from time to time--but there are so many problems, and there’s so little of substance to drive the experience forward, that The Mage's Tale feels more like a shallow experiment than a reason to get excited about VR.

Ever Oasis Review

Ever Oasis is a cute hybrid RPG that attempts to mix Animal Crossing-like town building with an adventure along the lines of The Legend of Zelda. Its compound formula is appealing on paper, but for a while, Ever Oasis falls short of its potential. Its simplistic narrative, cutesy visuals, and basic town-building mechanics test your patience in the beginning. But when its principal ideas are given a chance to take root, it sprouts into a surprisingly absorbing adventure that consistently rewards your time and efforts.

Set in a hostile desert world, you play as a young creature called a Seedling, who with the help of a water spirit, is capable of creating a magical safe haven known as an Oasis. Your adventure begins in ruin as your brother's Oasis is attacked by Chaos, an evil force that seeks to devastate and corrupt all living things. It lays waste to the area and its inhabitants, but before Chaos can harm you, your brother teleports you to safety in the hopes that you may survive to create a new Oasis and gather up the strength to defeat Chaos.

Ever Oasis' main story never stretches too far outside its basic premise, rarely expanding upon its rudimentary good-versus-evil dynamic. Despite the stakes set by its grim introduction, it predominantly maintains a happy-go-lucky attitude in the face of conflict, and you seldom get a sense of how Chaos has gripped the land or its people. There are a couple moments where it's expanded upon, like the plight of the Lagora, a race of squirrel-cats who once cultivated a lush forest to produce water, only for it to be consumed by Chaos. Details like this offer valuable insight into the game's world, but they're too few and far between.

As a result, it isn't the narrative that pulls you into Ever Oasis. Rather, it's the slow process of building up your personal desert refuge that proves to be the game's most rewarding element. You expand your Oasis by convincing travelers to live there. This can be done by fulfilling their requests, which typically range from fetch quests to escort missions. Successfully convincing travelers to become residents of your Oasis feeds into Bloom Booths, which are shops they can run that sell specific wares, such as juice, books, or fabric. Once a booth is built, you supply it with items the owner needs to stock their goods. This in turn attracts visitors who come to your Oasis to shop, racking up money for you to purchase seeds to grow crops, materials for equipment synthesis, or additional Bloom Booths. It takes time to learn these tenets, mostly due to the game's slow and incessant tutorials, but once you're given the reins, the loop is quickly rewarding.

It's satisfying to build up your Oasis and see it steadily grow more vibrant and lush.
It's satisfying to build up your Oasis and see it steadily grow more vibrant and lush.

The wider variety of Bloom Booths your Oasis contains, the more people that come to visit; and the more people that live in your Oasis, the higher its level, thus increasing its size and real-estate space. Your thoughts are always locked on what you can do to maximize your profits and upgrade your Oasis, or how you can entice a specific traveler into visiting. There's great joy in sorting through and accomplishing the various odd jobs you're given, but what's most fulfilling is seeing your Oasis take on new life as it levels up, sprouting lush greenery, paving wider roads, and erecting stone monuments.

While you spend much of your time developing your Oasis, there are occasions when you must venture into the game's overworld--often to seek out residents or explore nearby caves for materials. Most of the game's locales are wide-open desert landscapes, which sounds dull aesthetically but is actually pleasing to the eye thanks to the way the game's day/night cycle changes the world's color palette. The environments are not as dense as they could be, sometimes coming across as small sandboxes more so than lived-in spaces, but they sport a sense of interconnectedness that remains satisfying to explore.

The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat.
The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat.

In your trek across the game's arid deserts, you often fight creatures tainted by Chaos' presence. Like much of Ever Oasis, combat is rudimentary and tedious at first, boiling down to dodging an attack at the right moment and counterattacking accordingly. But as you obtain more advanced maneuvers and abilities, fights start to become more exciting affairs, especially when you form a party of three of your Oasis' most formidable residents to accompany you. The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat, as utilizing the unique strengths of various characters becomes paramount to your success in the late game's more difficult fights. While combat can be fulfilling, inconsistent party AI frequently leads to moments of frustration. It's common to see your companions running headfirst into a brutal attack, and other times skillfully dodging out of harm's way. The issue is minor, but you're liable to adopt the habit of bringing extra healing items to accommodate your allies' sporadic incompetence.

A major highlight of the overworld is its dungeons. Each contains a varied mix of puzzles to solve and enemies to fight. The myriad puzzles you encounter are elaborate, requiring you to utilize the unique abilities of your party. Some characters can, for example, shapeshift. This particular ability comes in handy when you need one ally to become a ball and another to form a wall for the first character to ricochet off of. While none of the ordeals you face are particularly difficult, they're diverse enough to keep you consistently engaged. However, an issue that detracts from the pacing of dungeons is the constant need to return to your Oasis to change your party members to overcome specific puzzles. Fast-travel alleviates this annoyance to some degree, but the number of times you're forced to go back and forth breaks up the flow of dungeons, reducing the enjoyment of exploring and overcoming these trials.

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While Ever Oasis is rough in spots, it helps that the game maintains a consistent level of wonder, introducing new types of challenges in step with your acquisition of new tools and abilities. Small quality-of-life adjustments, such as the ability to send out resource-gathering parties and bulk Bloom Booth restocking, are introduced to alleviate the demands of your routine as the game's scope increases and you're forced to spend more time exploring. It understands your struggles the moment you experience them, smartly streamlining your ability to accomplish tasks before they can become problematic. But building up your Oasis demands patience, and that can be the most challenging aspect of all. While it's easy to initially write off the game based on its rudimentary narrative and overtly vibrant visuals, what becomes compelling as you play more is the sense of ownership you start to feel for your Oasis and the bonds you create with your allies.

Ever Oasis' tight blend of mechanics and activities are bound to keep you coming back for more well after completing it, if only to see what else you can do to develop your desert sanctuary. While the game's story isn't particularly moving, the consistent gratification of its incisive design makes it a satisfying adventure. Ever Oasis takes time to grow, but the return is well worth the wait.

Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy Review

When Crash Bandicoot hit the scene in the '90s, it didn't take long for him to become the de facto PlayStation mascot. He didn't reach the same level of popularity as Mario or Sonic, but the original Crash games were charming platformers that resonated with audiences thanks to expressive characters and diverse environments. And unlike his peers, Crash was born in 3D; Mario and Sonic merely adopted it.

With the arrival of the N. Sane Trilogy collection, we now have the chance to revisit the first three Crash games in style, and while they look better than ever, they're otherwise direct replicas of the original games. Developed by Vicarious Visions, the N. Sane Trilogy collection features remastered versions of Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Gone are the rudimentary character models in favor of more realistic-looking creatures and environments, and a new lighting system bakes a measure of realism into the otherwise cartoonish world, giving the games a quality similar to 3D cartoons from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.

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While it's easy to look at these games and appreciate the care that's gone into their presentation, actually playing them stirs up conflicting emotions. There's no way around it: they remain dated despite their fresh look. Enemies rarely react to you, preferring instead to follow pre-determined paths and animation loops. And many obstacles are needlessly discouraging; Razor-thin tolerances for success and one-hit deaths make for a frustrating pairing. You can control Crash using an analog stick now, but smoother pivots and jumps don't alleviate the otherwise stiff gameplay lurking behind Crash's goofy exterior.

Not all levels are out to get you, however, and for the most part the N. Sane Trilogy offers a modest challenge that's perfectly suited for casual enjoyment. The ease at which you can fly through some stages allows you to experience a wide range of scenarios as well: you will carefully navigate the electrified waters of an eel infested sewer one minute and ride on the back of a tiger through a gauntlet of angry locals atop the Great Wall of China the next. There are also a handful of levels that allow you to reenact the famous boulder sequence from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, though you may be running from a massive polar bear instead of a boulder depending on the particular game in question.

This is all to say that Crash is what it's always been: a charming collection of platforming challenges that shift gears from one stage to the next. By putting three games next to each other, the N. Sane Trilogy overflows with nostalgia. The warm and fuzzy feeling you get from seeing familiar Crash levels presented in a way that mirrors what you held in your imagination is undeniable. But so too is the reality that Crash games aren't timeless. No amount of lighting or funny animations can make up for the rudimentary 3D platforming on display. You could even say that the look of these games belies their true nature.

The culprit behind Crash's dated feel is the passage of time. Vicarious Visions, for its part, succeeded in revitalizing Crash from an artistic perspective while preserving the charm that made him appealing when he first showed up, but years have passed since the original PlayStation was relevant, and we are well past the formative years of 3D gaming. It's easy to imagine how a dyed-in-the-wool Crash fan will fall in love all over again via the N. Sane Trilogy, but if you're experiencing Crash for the first time--or the first time in a while--it might pain you to realize that Crash's original adventures aren't as inventive or surprising as they were 20 years ago.

Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy Review

When Crash Bandicoot hit the scene in the '90s, it didn't take long for him to become the de facto PlayStation mascot. He didn't reach the same level of popularity as Mario or Sonic, but the original Crash games were charming platformers that resonated with audiences thanks to expressive characters and diverse environments. And unlike his peers, Crash was born in 3D; Mario and Sonic merely adopted it.

With the arrival of the N. Sane Trilogy collection, we now have the chance to revisit the first three Crash games in style, and while they look better than ever, they're otherwise direct replicas of the original games. Developed by Vicarious Visions, the N. Sane Trilogy collection features remastered versions of Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Gone are the rudimentary character models in favor of more realistic-looking creatures and environments, and a new lighting system bakes a measure of realism into the otherwise cartoonish world, giving the games a quality similar to 3D cartoons from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.

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While it's easy to look at these games and appreciate the care that's gone into their presentation, actually playing them stirs up conflicting emotions. There's no way around it: they remain dated despite their fresh look. Enemies rarely react to you, preferring instead to follow pre-determined paths and animation loops. And many obstacles are needlessly discouraging; Razor-thin tolerances for success and one-hit deaths make for a frustrating pairing. You can control Crash using an analog stick now, but smoother pivots and jumps don't alleviate the otherwise stiff gameplay lurking behind Crash's goofy exterior.

Not all levels are out to get you, however, and for the most part the N. Sane Trilogy offers a modest challenge that's perfectly suited for casual enjoyment. The ease at which you can fly through some stages allows you to experience a wide range of scenarios as well: you will carefully navigate the electrified waters of an eel infested sewer one minute and ride on the back of a tiger through a gauntlet of angry locals atop the Great Wall of China the next. There are also a handful of levels that allow you to reenact the famous boulder sequence from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, though you may be running from a massive polar bear instead of a boulder depending on the particular game in question.

This is all to say that Crash is what it's always been: a charming collection of platforming challenges that shift gears from one stage to the next. By putting three games next to each other, the N. Sane Trilogy overflows with nostalgia. The warm and fuzzy feeling you get from seeing familiar Crash levels presented in a way that mirrors what you held in your imagination is undeniable. But so too is the reality that Crash games aren't timeless. No amount of lighting or funny animations can make up for the rudimentary 3D platforming on display. You could even say that the look of these games belies their true nature.

The culprit behind Crash's dated feel is the passage of time. Vicarious Visions, for its part, succeeded in revitalizing Crash from an artistic perspective while preserving the charm that made him appealing when he first showed up, but years have passed since the original PlayStation was relevant, and we are well past the formative years of 3D gaming. It's easy to imagine how a dyed-in-the-wool Crash fan will fall in love all over again via the N. Sane Trilogy, but if you're experiencing Crash for the first time--or the first time in a while--it might pain you to realize that Crash's original adventures aren't as inventive or surprising as they were 20 years ago.