Category: Console

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey – ‘Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide’

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Evolution is beautiful, staggering, and uncaring. So too is Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, a survival-adventure game that rewinds the clock 10 million years to shine a light on the plights of early hominids.

It’s one of those video games that doesn’t come around all that often, both in subject matter and scope. You won’t just figure out how to walk upright – you’ll also learn to use both of your hands in tandem, then how to fashion tools, then how to use those tools to forge primitive weapons, and so on and so forth, passing crucial knowledge down through the generations and eventually evolving as a species.

A few months after its PC-only launch, Ancestors is now playable on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with better tutorials and a few extra sorely-needed niceties. The original timing wasn’t quite right for us – travel and other priorities got in the way of a review – but December is a different story. I’ve spent all week teaching my adorable children how to fend off saber-toothed cats, pythons, and even hippos.

Ancestors is ambitious to a fault, but it’s impressive that a relatively small studio – Panache Digital Games, led by one of the creators of the Assassin’s Creed series – was able to pull it off so well.

The path to humanity is paved with a whole heap of dead apes.

In the opening hours, when you’re still getting a grip on the basic controls (which trigger corresponds to which hand again?) and your unforgiving surroundings (which plants are nausea-inducing?), Ancestors can be tough to crack. That’s to say nothing of big-picture concepts like locking in certain traits so they aren’t lost during generational leaps, and capitalizing on helpful genetic mutations. It’s quite literally a game about learning – both for you, as a player, and your apes, who are making it up as they go.

Ancestors revels in minutia every step of the way, for better and for worse. You don’t press a “craft” button – you painstakingly sharpen a branch a dozen or so times until it resembles a makeshift spear. You don’t use a mini-map to spot predators – you find a safe perch and rely on your senses (hearing, smelling, and “intelligence”) to identify and tag the threat. You don’t just mate and have babies all quick like – you have to use audio cues to successfully woo a partner, and fertility is a factor.

The game can also be brutal, especially if you play even semi-recklessly. Death comes fast and early, and once a primate dies – due to a botched jump off a towering treetop, or an irate pack of feral hogs, or sheer exhaustion – that’s it. The poor primate won’t even cut it as a tiny footnote in the history books.

Somehow, I had the good fortune of never running out of apes in my seven-million-year journey, but that possibility weighed on me. I shudder to think about having to start anew after all the progress I’ve made. Misfortune and bad luck could be game-ruiners. But on the flip side, when you narrowly survive a long trek to rescue a stranded baby guarded by screeching monster-otters, or you finally, finally make it out of the jungle and put down roots in the savanna, you’ll feel a profound sense of accomplishment.

With that in mind, my first 10 hours flew by. Ancestors isn’t a consistently fresh experience – you can’t help but wonder what a bigger budget might’ve achieved – but it hits many of the marks that matter.

I felt like I was always learning some new trick (honey isn’t just for eating!), or gaining abilities to increase my odds (huge tip: prioritize dodging and counter-attacks in your neuronal network), or scouting distant question-marks (not all landmarks are safe to nap in). That momentum doesn’t last forever, of course. It’s a finite video game. One of Ancestor’s biggest faults is the way content starts to repeat itself. The opening hours are significantly more interesting than the mid- or even late-game.

The evolution mechanic encourages you to use every type of tool in every conceivable way and leave no area of interest unexplored, which is great. That’s what Ancestors is about. The more you push on into the unknown, and grow, and take on new predators, the bigger your evolutionary leaps in time will be. But if you’re committed to reaching the credits, you’ll hit an inevitable point where these goals (known in-game as “feats”) become increasingly asinine as you run out of attainable tasks on your checklist.

Scouring for meteor crash sites? Cool – you didn’t even need to ask. Intimidating a rhino herd like a madman with a death wish? Sure, love too. Getting a crocodile to take down a black mamba, a warthog, a gazelle, and several other animals that I can hoot and holler at but not easily direct? No. Just… no.

As much as Ancestors is spread too thin to pull off evolution in a cohesively entertaining way, I enjoyed the other side of the token: generational time-skips. Once initiated, your babies turn into adults, your adults turn into elders, and your elders become bone piles full of valuable XP. You can only pass on a small portion of your skills to the new generation, but skills tend to unlock in a more organic way than the later evolutionary feats, and they branch off in a bunch of directions, so they come steadily.

What little I played of the original PC version of Ancestors often felt like taking a pop quiz about an off-hand remark a professor whispered on the first day of class while everyone was busy reading the class syllabus. Figuring out how to do anything, no matter how insignificant, felt like tangible progress.

At launch, the console versions aren’t nearly as arcane. They’ve been demystified with more informative tutorials, explicit goals to work toward, and a control cheat-sheet in the pause menu that serves as a much-needed recap – even for things you aren’t ready to know yet. There’s still a pervasive sense of intrigue and discovery, but you won’t feel a constant urge to look up guides and wikis to survive.

As someone who loves unrestricted exploration, incremental character improvements, and the cult-favorite PlayStation 3 game Tokyo Jungle, Ancestors ticks a lot of very specific boxes. Not that many people will play it – and far fewer will reach the final evolution – but it’s worth celebrating all the same.

Ancestors is a large, fussy, and at times uneven survival experience, but it’s also deeply gratifying once you sink your teeth in. Make it through the wringer, and you’ll come out wanting to share stories about your run-of-the-mill open-world exploits to anyone who will listen – no small feat in 2019. The console versions are smoother than their original PC counterpart, so if you’ve been curious, now’s the time.

Categories: Console PC Review

Mutazione is a game about the importance of tending to gardens and people

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For a game that’s a little experimental or offers a particularly unique take, it is often easiest to explain it by finding something to compare it to. That way, in a few words, you can roughly understand what sort of game it is. A Short Hike is like Animal Crossing plus The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Pear Quest is like an adventure game crossed with a Where’s Waldo? book. But for Mutazione, it’s difficult to find that comparison point.

Mutazione is an adventure game in the sense that “adventure game” has become a sort of catch-all genre term for games that have lots of narrative with some gameplay elements, like Night in the Woods. The story follows Kai, a high school girl, who sets off to visit her estranged grandfather after receiving a letter that says he might be dying. He also happens to live far away from her city home on an island full of mutant plants called Mutazione, a name that is seemingly a portmanteau of mutant, zone, and biome.

You learn that the island was once a pretty normal city until a meteor destroyed the whole thing and started to cause mutations in both people and the plant life. The small community that continues to live there is made up of mutated humans and one sentient fungus scientist who have created fairly normal lives for themselves. They built their village from the ruins of the old city while living in harmony with the strange flora and fauna of the island. Nonno, the aforementioned grandfather, acts as the town’s shaman. But as he’s grown more ill, he hasn’t been able to complete his duties to help maintain that balance; instead, he ropes unsuspecting Kai into helping.

Kai is able to help by replanting and tending to various gardens around the village, each requiring different types of plants to bring it back to its normal state. These gardens unlock as you progress through the story; typically, you’ll get access to a new one in each chapter of the game. These chapters take place over the course of a day split into various periods, like morning, afternoon, and evening. During each segment, you are free to explore the island, find seeds to use in the gardens, and talk to any villagers. The day and the story progress after you complete whatever specific task or conversation the game requires you to have.

This means you can effectively just do the things the game requires you to do, and skip the optional conversations with the townsfolk. But those conversations prove to be some of the most fruitful and meaningful ones. They can help you to better understand the characters. For instance, if you visit Miu early on, you learn she likes to listen to loud punk music before going hunting at night. But as things developed, I found myself not just seeking out the characters I liked, but making sure I talked with everyone. There are a lot of things brewing under the surface: unrequited love, terrible trauma, and painful memories that characters try to hide or keep bottled up with the best intentions.

Those hidden things eventually become part of those major conversations that advance the story, with the optional conversations serving to help fill out your understanding or foreshadow what is going to happen. Kai’s main focus is on her grandfather and their story, but everyone else on the island is in the middle of their own story. And because it’s such a small and tightly knit community, those storylines are tangled together.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that the gardening serves not just to add some gameplay, but as a metaphor. Before Kai’s arrival, the gardens were left untended, some in such a state that there hadn’t been a garden there to begin with. It’s not that different from the state of the townspeople of the island. They may seem like normal mutants, but there are issues that they haven’t tended to yet either.

This has, in turn, caused issues for them that are weakening their community almost imperceptibly. It’s only once they start to deal with their own issues and each other that they revitalize things. At first blush, Mutazione seems like a fairly relaxing narrative game about gardening, but it is actually more of soap opera — a chill one where you get to make gardens of mutant flora.

Categories: Console PC Review

Tools Up is kinda like Overcooked, but instead of cooking, you renovate

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Good bones

If I have time to kill on a lazy weekend and I come across a local co-op game in the style of Overcooked, chances are high I’m gonna want to take it for a whirl. That’s exactly how I fell into Tools Up, a team-building – and potentially friendship-wrecking – home renovation game for one to four players.

Tools Up is nowhere near as good as Overcooked, for a few reasons, but I don’t regret playing it at all.

There’s something so innately satisfying about laying down wallpaper and tiles, at least in low-stakes simplified video-game form. Grout, glue, and mortar are a mess to deal with in real life, and while the same can be said for Tools Up, that’s part of the fun of arcade party games. Plus, cleanup is a cinch.

Each of the 30 levels is a time trial of sorts – a several-minutes-long race to finish as much of a home-improvement work order as you possibly can in exchange for a one- to three-star rating at the end. While the clock ticks down, you’ll rush to pick up and read blueprints, figure out which room needs what done, grab supplies, and divvy up duties if you’re playing cooperatively (which is what I’d recommend).

A typical home might require new walls – either a particular style of wallpaper or shade of paint – and new carpeting. In both cases, you’ll likely need to rip out the old to make way for the new. You’ll tear everything up, toss it in a bucket, bring said bucket to the dumpster, and get to work. Except, you usually won’t have all your supplies right away (they’ll be delivered at random intervals by an impatient delivery guy who won’t wait around long), and you won’t know precisely what each finished room should look like without manually inspecting the blueprints to see a preview. Oh, and you can’t leave a mess.

Paint buckets will spill. Rolls of carpet won’t sit still. You can accidentally rip a door straight off its hinges. There’s no shortage of ways in which you or your pesky teammates can tear the place up. It’s not enough to finish a job to the homeowner’s specifications – you also have to leave it spotless. So even if you “win,” you aren’t getting the full three star-rating if you forget some supplies inside.

My favorite parts of Tools Up were the moments where tight quarters proved tricky; where we genuinely had to work together – either to run to the front door for an out-of-nowhere delivery, or to move heavy furniture out of each other’s way – rather than kind of just separately do our own thing.

I also love how flooring works. There’s a “cooldown” period after placing each segment of flooring that prevents anyone from walking over it – a slight wrinkle that requires planning and communication.

As you settle into Tools Up, you’ll probably expect to see new environmental themes, but there are just a couple, including slippery floors and lava pools. You’ll also probably expect the game to introduce fresh concepts over time to keep you on your toes, but aside from wall-busting demotion and bricklaying, there isn’t a whole lot else to discover. The levels have a strange meandering pace overall. For instance: the final mission? Not so bad! Definitely much easier than the random level in which a tiny dog terrorizes your group, blocking the path and knocking supplies over every step of the way.

To sum it up, there are hints of greatness. But just hints.

The actual act of playing Tools Up – while very simplistic – is enjoyable in the moment, and it’s particularity well-suited to families with a range of video game expertise. But it’s hard not to want more unique challenges, either with physical obstacles or more creatively demanding interior designs.

Tools Up doesn’t make the most of its clever co-op gaming concept, but I still had a decent enough time. I’ll be there day one if a sequel ever takes this home-renovation hook and runs wild with it.

Categories: Console PC Review

SuperMash – We’re using the GOOD potatoes

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SuperMash looked like one of the standouts during Nintendo’s recent Indie World Showcase, a genre-defying retro throwback to early Nintendo titles which seemed perfect for the Switch.

Surprisingly, the game had already launched one day before the presentation on the PC, where it’s an Epic Games Store exclusive. While it won’t be ready for home consoles for a few months, the PC version should give us a pretty good idea of what to expect when it arrives.

So how does SuperMash play?

SuperMash is a love letter to Nintendo games of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period when developers were still experimenting with what could be accomplished on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game’s premise is that you work in a modern game store which sells retro titles, and find an unusual console at a garage sale, one with slots for two cartridges. This heavily modified “Playtype” console came with a stack of homebrew games, as well as a journal left behind by the person who was working on them. 

Six genres are represented (with more on the way as DLC, according to the developer), and players are encouraged to mix and match them to create different blends of games, which the characters in the store call “Mashes.” It’s a good thing you found this machine, because your store has lost its lease and you’ll need to sell a lot of these custom games to keep it running. This story is told in a visual novel style, but it’s pretty much just a wraparound for the real meat of the game: the mashups.

Each of the genres borrows heavily from a classic NES title, though the visuals are usually more representative of what the Super Nintendo could handle.

The “Action-Adventure” cartridge is basically a Legend of Zelda clone, the “Platformer” cart resembles the Super Mario series, “Stealth” copies Metal Gear, “JRPG” takes inspiration from Final Fantasy, “Metrovania” unsurprisingly borrows from Metroid and latter-day Castlevania titles, and “Shoot-em-up” seems to be inspired by Galaga and Capcom’s 1942. Each genre can be crossed with one other, or you can slot two of the same cartridges in to get a purer game experience.

Each of the genres has its own story and characters, which can be explored through the journal. Collecting certain key items from one or another of the genres will unlock entries in the journal, which is how you progress the plot in the visual novel “real world” scenes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee your goal for a level will include one of these key items, so it’s a bit random how many mashes you’ll have to play before you can get to the next plot hook. Completing a journal page will let you take on the boss fight for a given genre, using a specific character and skill set tailored to the boss.

One other detail worth mentioning is the idea of “Dev cards,” which are earned for every successful mash completion. They can also be earned using in-game currency or by completing sidequests in the visual novel portion of the game.

Dev cards give you a degree of agency by letting you control “glitches” in the mashes. These are beneficial or detrimental modifiers which can make a given mash easier or harder, and there’s usually at least one of each active based on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen for your mash. There’s no way to turn these glitches off, so being able to control which ones you see helps quite a bit. Dev cards also allow you to select a specific protagonist, weapon, background, and/or music for your next mash.

A lot of SuperMash’s charm and how well it works on you is going to depend on how much nostalgia you have for the time period it’s trying to represent. Each mash you create has its own title screen and introductory cutscene, and these can be pretty entertaining in and of themselves. Who wouldn’t want to play through Dude-Bro Odyssey or High Roller Ninja? 

The interactions between various genres can be pretty interesting. Blending a JRPG with a shoot-em-up gave me a game where I could only fire at the alien bugs coming from the top of the screen once my Active Time Battle gauge had filled up, which was far more tactical than I’d have expected. It’s not the same every time, either; trying the same combination later on gave me a role-playing game where a military fighter plane served as the protagonist, or a dungeon crawler where random encounters took place as sky battles over a nameless desert. When I tried making a Stealth RPG, I found it amusing as hell to see SuperMash’s Solid Snake stand-in giving a snappy salute to a knockoff of the Final Fantasy fanfare after a battle. 

Unfortunately, moments like this are few and far between. Everything in SuperMash is procedurally generated, and this can lead to some impossible scenarios if an enemy ends up in exactly the wrong position, or if a glitch cuts off access to a key item. The platforming physics cause you to fall straight down if you take a hit midair, so some mashes become incredibly frustrating for no good reason. You can also end up in a scenario where enemies gain health every time you input an action, so shoot-em-up enemies end up gaining health faster than you can blast it away.

The main problem is very few of the games you’ll end up creating using the mash system are worth playing more than once. None of the mashes end up being anywhere near as good as the titles they take inspiration from. It’s an impressive technical achievement, to be sure. But I’d much rather play a handcrafted level from a game like Shovel Knight than a hundred algorithmically generated levels in SuperMash. I’d be much more interested if this engine were used to create a Mario Maker-style tool which allows for precise platform and enemy placement, instead of the computer-generated levels you end up playing through.

I didn’t find the visual novel’s story especially compelling, and the ephemeral nature of the mashes means there’s not really any in-game progression to work toward. You may pick up a few power-ups on your way through a mash, but they’ll be gone when you start the next one.

I also ran into a few situations where the game I mashed up crashed on me, though these were explained away in-game by the rickety nature of the modded console. It only seemed to happen when I blended the Stealth and Shoot-em-up genres, which don’t go together especially well anyway. 

Unfortunately, SuperMash is a game where the concept is better than the execution. While the spritework and chiptunes are nice, the gameplay holds the whole thing back; a big problem when the gameplay is supposed to be the main feature. Ironically, the mashed-up games usually end up being less than the sum of their parts.

Categories: Console PC Review

Borderlands 3: Moxxi’s Heist of The Handsome Jackpot – Handsome Boy Heist School

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Having helped usher in the idea of the season pass and one of the few who ever offered a second pass, Gearbox is no stranger to DLC.

In fact, by the time Borderlands 3’s run is done (in 2030?) it may not even be the same game, seeing as Borderlands 2 got a bridge-DLC nearly seven years after launch. Anything could happen is what I’m saying, and with Moxxi’s Heist of The Handsome Jackpot as the first of the premium lot, wackiness is already on the table.

Given Borderlands 3’s expanded “universe-hopping” feel, the idea of jetting across the galaxy to a fully-enclosed location makes the DLC feel a little more worthy of its premium status. This time you’re raiding Handsome Jack’s casino under the tutelage of Mad Moxxi, who claims that Jack stole the plans for the casino from her. Jack, you son of a bitch! I’m in.

As far as story connections go, Handsome Jackpot is tenuous. Moxxi and Jack are both fan favorites and constantly cosplayed, so I get why Gearbox focused on their feud here. But the myth of Handsome Jack is so far removed from the Borderlands mythos that it’s hard to care about him when there’s so many other characters to focus on, and Moxxi’s motivations and presence are lacking. In other words, it’s a lot like Borderlands 3 as a whole: there’s plenty of reasons to blow stuff up and lots of cool guns to collect, but without a strong reason for being there. Think of Heist as another planet from the core game, with its own fast-travel points and sidequests just like the rest. In case you’re wondering, it’s about as involved as past DLCs: roughly in the three to four-hour mark without extras.

The casino itself is flashy as hell and the holograms of Jack (plus one surprise) are enigmatic enough, despite the overall stink of fanservice. Fortunately for you (in terms of enemy variety), Jack trapped a lot of people inside the casino due to forced overwhelming debt, so you have plenty of humanoid enemies to fight beyond the typical robot Loaders. There’s a sliver of intrigue here that the game never really explores, as factions and gangs slowly arose out of the ashes of an empire built by a dead man.

Blackjack chests (in which you can hit or stay in order to open them) also add a little flavor to the neon-heavy casino world. While I won’t spoil the near-finale, it goes down in a polarizing parody/homage to various heist films. I dug it, and hope that Gearbox experiments further with ideas like this that are vaguely reminiscent of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. Yet, that experiment is all too brief as things get back on a more traditional track.

That’s pretty much it. It’s another Borderlands locale to explore with a small-time turf war and some quirky quips. Yet, I was entertained throughout thanks to the strong foundation of Borderlands 3, which hasn’t gotten old. I took my main (FL4K) along, tried out a few different builds and guns, and had a merry time gunning through the DLC. While it’s not exceedingly impressive as a standalone add-on, if all of them are like this, the game will be in good shape down the line.

Borderlands 3’s first DLC is quirky and action-packed, but I was decidedly left wanting more. Hopefully the other campaigns will take more risks, but in the meantime Moxxi’s Heist of the Handsome Jackpot is more Borderlands, which is typically a good thing.

Categories: Console PC Review

Tangle Tower’s animations and voice acting make it an engrossing murder mystery game

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It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

When we talk about production values in video games, it usually means big-budget titles like The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2. The kinds of experiences where the studio can put additional time into seemingly minor things like making sure characters walk up stairs in a way that looks normal, or having horses realistically poop. They aren’t things that greatly affect the moment-to-moment gameplay, but instead help to create an illusion of realism, allowing for more immersion.In Tangle Tower, there is so much production value put into the game’s animation and voice acting that I actually forgot I was playing a game for about the first hour.

Tangle Tower is a murder mystery adventure puzzle game set in a mysterious mansion on a strange, secluded island full of unique plant and animal life. You play as Grimoire and Sally, a team of private detectives called on to look into the murder of Freya Fellows. Freya was killed in a locked room at the top of one of the mansion’s two towers while she was painting a portrait of her aunt, Flora Fellows. Unraveling the mystery involves uncovering a lot of the strange goings-on and strained relations between the Fellows family and Pointer family, who cohabitate in the mansion.

The gameplay is a bit like a combination of the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney games. You’ll be interrogating all the interesting characters who inhabit the mansion with different clues you’ll find, while exploring the mansion’s rooms in a way similar to the investigations in Ace Attorney. However, some clues are hidden behind intricate, puzzle-like locks, which, unlike many Professor Layton puzzles, feel more appropriate to the situation and less like an abstract puzzle from a book.

For instance, there’s a model of the solar system in the observatory that has a secret locked drawer in it that only opens when the model is arranged in a specific way, involving how the planets cast shadows. The clue you find in it becomes important not just for what it is, but also for the fact that it was hidden in the first place. Collectively this makes it feel less like a puzzle and more like a secret lock you happened to stumble on and cleverly figured out how to unlock.

The really great thing about Tangle Tower, though, is how engrossing it is. From the screenshots, it is probably hard to understand how that could happen, as the game looks like a pretty standard visual novel / adventure game, but there are lots of things it does that cause you to get swept up; at times it feels less like a game and more like watching an animated murder mystery. A big part of it is the animation and voice acting for each of the characters, which lets you know very quickly what sort of person they are.

There’s also just so much of it. It rarely feels like you are seeing characters repeat animations, even when they are, since the bigger gestures and flourishes are timed perfectly with the voice acting. And each character has voice-over for every bit of dialogue, not just for the few questions you have or during big scenes, but for every piece of evidence you present them and every person you can ask them about. Often, even the way they deliver that information says so much about them as a character, like how Poppy Pointer recites these Emily Dickinson-esque poems whenever you ask her about someone else in the mansion. This not only conveys how she sees everyone else, but also plays into her goth musician aesthetic.

What makes all the animations, performances, and writing fit together is that by default they just play. Normally with this sort of visual novel, even when there is voice acting, the player has to press a button to move to the next line of dialogue. Often in these games, there are options to make it play on its own, but with autoplay as the default in Tangle Tower, the dialogue and animation take center stage. You can just sit back and be absorbed in watching it (in fact, the trailer above has some great examples of this.)

It was so absorbing that I found myself going through the paces of playing the game, searching rooms, and solving puzzles almost reflexively in order to move on to the next bit of dialogue or animation. It wasn’t until I had to stop and think about a puzzle for more than a few moments that I realized how immersed I had been. The closest comparison might be if you’ve ever been sucked into reading a comic or a book.

Even without the excellent voice acting and animation, Tangle Tower is still an interesting murder mystery full of complex characters and relationships, with an assortment of puzzles that are the right amount of challenging, varied, and narratively cohesive. But the production values of the animation and voice acting push it from being a good murder mystery into something memorable.

Categories: Console PC Review

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: Rise of the Phoenix – A lukewarm pot of gumbo, chere

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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 had some lingering issues at launch, most notably a lack of key cast members (the same fate that fell upon Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite). But Team Ninja had a plan: through both free and paid DLC, that roster would slowly grow into a formidable force.

The only problem? They aren’t giving us anything interesting to do with those characters.

Since the characters are the main focus here I’ll start there. If you need a full roster update I have an updated database here, but the new ones for this DLC are Cable, Gambit, Iceman and Dark Phoenix.

All I can hear when I look at Gambit these days is “kinetic card!” but he’s so much more than that iconic battle cry. Gambit has been a go-to in the realm of gaming for several decades, with an undeniable sense of swagger, a badass bo-staff and flashy looking projectiles. He’s arguably the best bit of DLC yet, as his kit includes card traps (that you can fling and detonate on the ground) as well as an area-of-effect energy field that slows enemies. The “keep tapping to toss junk” mechanic is overplayed, but helps keep Gambit viable for higher-level challenges.

Although a lot of people are probably over Bobby Drake, Iceman is low key one of my favorite X-Men heroes. His ice surfing kicked ass in the lesser-known Marvel Powers United VR, as well as any number of games he’s squeezed into over the years: you just don’t see a lot of frost powers these days and he fulfills that niche. Other than a frost shield (that impacts the whole party, useful!) his abilities aren’t anything to write home about, but I dig that he gets around by blowing ice on the ground. Teaming him up with Storm and Loki, who sport their own freeze abilities, is also a nice bit of synergy.

As for Dark Phoenix I could go either way. On one hand, that power fantasy is really hard to actually nail with balance issues in mind, and I feel like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was the only game to really flirt with it. On the other, we never got Jean Grey at launch, and this is nearly the best of both worlds. It’s kind of anticlimactic to just pay to unlock her (unlike in the past where you had to assemble Iron Man’s suit, or find M’Kraan fragments), and I’d love a Zelda/Sheik situation where you would be able to swap personas. While the DLC so far has basically been above bar (or at it, with Phoenix’s alright kit), I want something really out-there next time (like a Super Skrull that has bits of all the Fantastic Four members, which we probably won’t get).

Cable is another tricky hero to get right. We all remember the classic Marvel vs. Capcom 2 rendition, but that’s probably his most interesting incarnation. Oftentimes he’s fighting off comparisons to Bishop and other gun-toting mutants, trying his best to maintain a sense of style amid his more stoic appearance. Here he stands out from the crowd a bit, with an autonomous gun, a gravity well grenade, a shield that reflects blasts (including your allies) and a risk-reward psychic blast that reduces your defense if you overuse it. He’s another strong character to add to the mix.

But you have to grind a bit to play as them; and there’s a real sense of dread associated with defeating bosses like Juggernaut and Mystique (from the campaign) yet again to unlock the new characters. Like Curse of the Vampire before it (the first DLC pack), there is no interesting story material here to work with whatsoever. “Additional Gauntlet missions” is one of the most boring checkboxes I’ve seen this year, and the new Danger Room mode isn’t anything to write home about either. It’s basically just more Gauntlet (challenge rooms) action with a few hazards thrown in and a “competitive” element involving a score attack conceit. The idea is that you’re racing another team asynchronously in existing areas against existing enemies, which is only enticing if you have eight very competitive power-players involved. When I hear the phrase “Rise of the Phoenix,” that’s not what really comes to mind.

Earlier this year Team Ninja and Nintendo spoke about “story scenario” content. Where is it? The new characters are great for the most part, but we need more zones to actually use them in. Having an extended campaign with some really out-there storylines would have been a fantastic use of paid DLC, but for now you’re stuck just doing the same errands over and over or restarting once again. Hopefully the 2020-bound Fantastic Four pack doesn’t suffer the same fate, but at present you’re basically buying 12 characters for $20.

Categories: Console Review

Wattam – ‘So I just did me some talking to the sun’

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Wattam, the new “goof-around” game from Katamari Damacy’s Keita Takahashi, is like burrowing yourself in a fuzzy blanket that’s still radiating heat from the dryer. It’s silly, jovial, and above all, cozy.

I came in expecting a toy-box world with an eclectic band of characters, and that’s pretty much what I got. There are no wild game mechanics to master or brain-busting puzzles to decipher – but there is a proper story, one that kept me surprisingly engaged and motivated the whole way through.

If you’re in the mood for a cute game about cute people doing cute stuff, you’ll feel at home.

Starting as the lonely Mayor, a green box-shaped fellow with a playful bomb tucked under his hat, you’ll continuously expand not only your list of playable pals (to over 100), but also the scope of the world, which is split up across several floating islands. Each step of the way, you’ll make new friends – the game has two separate buttons dedicated to hand-holding! – and try to solve their problems.

A sushi father might need help rounding up his roe children. A towering tree might want to suck up people, Whispy Woods-style, and turn them into fruit. A toilet might want to flush some junk. A huge part of the joy of this game comes from the fun and funny ways in which characters interact.

By the end, it devolves into beautiful chaos, sometimes to the detriment of the frame rate (but not in a game-breaking sort of way). Initially, you’ll use the right analog stick to swap between characters with a hovering cursor. Further in, you’ll come to rely on a collection list that lets you instantly switch over.

Wattam has a few tough puzzles to crack, but for the most part, you’ll be able to immediately glean what you need to do next and how to go about doing it. In some ways, I wish the game was a bit more gradual with this information – that it gave you more breathing room before dishing out clues.

That said, I also understand who Wattam is for: a whole range of people with different backgrounds.

The controls, objectives, and visual concepts are simplified and universal enough that casual players should have a smooth time working things out. There’s also enough creativity to hold seasoned players’ attention. While the game doesn’t make a big fuss about this, drop-in local co-op is the way to go.

Wattam is definitely something I’ll want to revisit when I have kids. It’s a toy-box come to life.

How long is the game? I spent five hours on the story, then a few extra hours messing around and trying to work out some of the more obscure character interactions, which felt like plenty. (Do yourself a favor and don’t stop playing until you’ve filled in the final spots on the roster. They’re such a pleasant surprise.) If you want to eke out even more time in this lovable world, there are quite a few trophies.

I’m not sure if Takahashi will ever be able to top Katamari Damacy – for my money, it’s one of the greatest video games ever made – but Wattam captures that sense of whimsy and magic in its own way. The care-free music and gosh-darn-huggable character designs make this a must-play for fans.

The puzzles are uniformly strange, but they’re also playful, letting you experiment with ideas until you find the solution. Things start out relatively simple, but as you uncover more characters and open up new areas, the interactions become more complex — and fun. Pretty much every element of Wattam is designed with whimsy in mind, like how each character has its own unique musical theme or the way the camera mode involves finding a literal camera. Watching a group of disparate objects form a circle, and then spin around until they can’t stop laughing, never really gets old. And since the game rarely spells out what you can do, figuring these interactions out is an act of discovery.

This kind of good-natured play is par for the course for Takahashi, whose previous work includes Katamari, a game about rolling objects into a giant ball, and Noby Noby Boy, a game about stretching out a giant worm. What’s unexpected about Wattam is how emotional the story gets. You might not believe that after playing for an hour or two, given the simple dialogue and copious poop jokes. But that starts to change as you start to learn more about the world and how it came to be, thanks in large part to melancholic storybook sequences. Wattam becomes something much more profound. It even ends by forcing you to make a tough, nuanced moral decision. If you’re going to play Wattam, you most definitely need to see it through to the conclusion.

It’s been well over a decade since Katamari debuted, and since then, there have been few games that capture the same lighthearted-yet-touching vibe. Even Takahashi’s subsequent work has largely failed to reach the same standard set by his iconic debut. It’s a tricky thing to balance, making a game that feels free and open but doesn’t frustrate players with a lack of direction. Wattam not only nails it much like Katamari did, but it also evokes a very similar set of feelings. It’s the rare game full of both laughter and sadness — and probably the only one that also features talking eyeballs and toilets.

I kind of hope Funomena never makes figurines, because I’ll spend way too much money on them.

Categories: Console PC Review