Category: PC

John Wick Hex’s cerebral action doesn’t match the movies

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The stylish action sequences in the John Wick movies work so well because of their cold, clinical sequencing. Keanu Reeves’ titular character rarely misses his shot, dispatching enemies in the most efficient manner possible. Often he’ll incapacitate someone, take out someone else, and return to the first target for the final kill. It makes you wonder whether anyone could possibly be that elegant and mindful in a real-world firefight.

They couldn’t, of course, which is why John Wick Hex, a new game billed as a prequel to the movies, sounds like a great idea. Instead of going the obvious route of adapting the franchise into a Max Payne-style third-person shooter, designer Mike Bithell (Thomas was Alone, Volume) has come up with an original strategy-based concept that translates John Wick’s methodical action into a format where you have time to think.

As you might expect from the title, John Wick Hex plays out on a hex-based grid, although the game’s minimalist comic book-style art doesn’t actually go as far as to render the shapes on the ground. While actions are only set in motion once you give John a command, the combat isn’t technically turn-based, unlike many strategy games. Instead, each action takes up a specific amount of time, and the game’s central challenge comes from managing this time so that you get to the enemies before they get to you.

Let’s say you enter a room and see a bad guy standing with his back to you. You sidle up to him in a split second, then take another 1.4 seconds to take him down, directing his lifeless body behind a table. At this point, two more enemies enter the room, so you crouch and roll behind another table, taking another 0.9 seconds and a couple of points off your “focus” meter, which will affect your aim when you stand up to shoot the first enemy. You still have an 80 percent chance to make the shot, and thankfully you do. But the second enemy has enough time to fire a shot back at you, so you need to dive into your limited bandage supply to patch yourself up, which takes another three seconds. She’s approaching your table. Will you be able to shoot her in time, or will you have to parry her attack, or were you ultimately doomed by your decision to roll behind that table a few seconds ago?

John Wick Hex is entirely made up of situations like this, and when it works, it’s really satisfying. The time-management aspect is smartly designed, deconstructing the movies’ combat sequences into a series of quick decisions. Each stage is tightly designed and puts up a good challenge. A lot of thought has been put into devising the death traps for your Keanu-inspired avatar to navigate.

Unfortunately, the game just isn’t as slick as the movies. You will die a lot in John Wick Hex, and success often comes down to trial and error. Even when you do succeed, though, there’s little payoff. You can watch a replay of your actions strung together, but there’s no cinematic verve. Mostly, you’ll see a crude Keanu-ish model walking back and forth with stilted animations. There’s only so much you can do when your character is restricted to six directions and not many more colors.

Often, John Wick Hex reminded me of Hotline Miami and Katana Zero, two more games that are mostly about entering rooms, deciding which order to kill people in, and dying a lot. But John Wick Hex has none of the twitchy 2D exhilaration of those games, which do a great job of making you feel like a badass the one time you do get it right.

Part of this is just the nature of a cerebral strategy game, of course, and there wouldn’t be much point to John Wick Hex if you managed to beat everything the first time. The small scope of each stage, however, makes each new attempt feel like less of an opportunity to try new tactics and more like you just haven’t stumbled across the correct order of commands yet. There’s little room for improvisation or creativity in your approach.

It’s possible, even likely, that I’m just not cut out to be a cold-blooded assassin. John Wick Hex is a smart take on the franchise in many ways, and it might well click for you more than it did for me. (If it does, I’m not saying you’re cut out to be an assassin, just to be clear.) But while I respect its substance, I came away wishing for a little more style.

Categories: PC Review

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

YELLOW & YANGTZE -Not My Favourite Colour But I’ll Manage

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At the end of the last millennium, the board game market was dominated by a certain Dr Reiner Knizia. Within a brief three-year period, Reiner released such classics as Through the Desert (1998), Samurai (1998), Ra (1999), Lost Cities (1999) and Battle Line (2000). All of these games were massive hits and have since been converted to digital platforms. Kicking off this purple patch was the 1997 release of Tigris & Euphrates, for many, the apex of Mr Knizier’s creativity.

T&E is an abstract civ-building game with heaps of the kind of in-your-face conflict that you rarely see in modern-day euro games. Something else that you should know about Dr Knizia is that he likes nothing more than to tinker with his designs. Indeed, these variations on a theme can exasperate even the most diehard of his fans, who yearn for a return to the good old days of original, demanding games. So, twenty years after riding a tyre down river Euphrates, Knizia has seen fit to release a sister game entitled Yellow & Yangtze (brought to digital by the fine folks at Dire Wolf Digital, of Raiders of the North Sea fame).

Both games see players competing for points, in Y&Y the four areas of influence are; farming, trading, military strength and administration. However, each player’s final score will be the sphere with the lowest total. The twist is one seen in many of Knizia’s games and it prevents players from gunning for a lopsided strategy. It also makes thematic sense; there is no point having a massive military force if you haven’t got the resources to feed your soldiers. Players can also earn gold, which is allocated to improve their lowest scoring sphere at the end.

Each player begins the game with a set of different coloured leaders; Governor, Soldier, Farmer, Trader, and Artisan, and a random hand of tiles. The board shows the two eponymous rivers and seven warring cities, each with their own black governor tile. In a move away from T&E, this time the map is divided into hexagons rather than squares. On each turn players can perform up to two actions, a quick tap will toggle between your leaders and tiles, and the first thing that you will want to do is to drag a leader into play. Leaders must be placed next to a black tile, and doing so will create your first state, defined as a leader with one or more linked tiles. Now, that leader can start you on the path to victory. Place a tile matching the leader’s colour in the same state and you will earn a point in the corresponding area of influence. Some tiles have their own special rules, the blue farming tiles are limited to placement on rivers, but you can place all of them for just one action. Place a green commercial tile and you can choose a tile from the market, rather than drawing blindly.

One key difference from T&E is that the building of monuments has been replaced with pagodas. Pagodas are easier to build, just place a triangle of three tiles of the same colour and a pagoda will magically appear. The disadvantages are that they have a lower point-scoring potential and they are not permanent. There can only ever be a maximum of two pagodas of the same colour in play at any one time. As soon as someone builds a third then they must also remove one of the two previously placed form the map. There are also more direct ways of messing with your opponent, namely revolts and wars. A revolt is triggered when two like-coloured leaders end up in the same state. The winner is decided by how many black governor tiles each leader is adjacent to, this total can be boosted by playing extra black tiles directly from your hand. Wars are initiated when the placement of a tile causes two states to join together that have opposing leaders of the same colour. This time strength is determined by the use of red military tiles. Victory results in points for each opposition leader that was defeated. Losers have to remove their defeated leaders and tiles from the board.

Wars can be very chaotic affairs. A leader will put loyalty to the state before their allegiance to you, so you will sometimes have your leaders on different sides in the same battle. Then, you have the tricky decision of deciding which side to support. Even neutral players can add supporting tiles to the battle to try and manipulate the outcome. Overall, the stakes in Y&Y are lower, there are fewer points on offer, and losing doesn’t feel so harsh. This does mean that conflict is frequent, making the game feel more dynamic.

There are a couple of extra bonus actions to mention. Two green tiles can be discarded to build a new pagoda in an already prepared area. Whereas, two blue tiles can be discarded to initiate a peasant’s riot, leading to a tile being removed permanently from play. Even those leaders that are yet to be placed now have a use. They do not just sit on the sidelines, instead, lending their strength in conflicts or reducing the cost of bonus actions.

At first, distinguishing between symbols and colours feels a little counter-intuitive. The colours signify different things depending on the context. Red, for instance, could represent your military leader, soldiers or swords. In most games you select a colour to play, here you select a symbol such as a lion or an archer or, wait for it – a pot. Playing as the pot is the equivalent of being lumbered with the iron in Monopoly. Far more serious is that the solo game has an annoying tendency to freeze during wars. I’m sure that this is an issue that will be addressed shortly, but it may be worth holding back until the inevitable update hits the store.

The interface is simple and instinctive and the graphics bright and bold, although the map looks a little washed out. Watching your lavish pagoda spring into existence is a real feel good moment. There are plenty of options, too, including pass and play, online and a solo campaign mode. The nine-stage campaign is cleverly realised, with its own special rules and victory conditions. All the stages are linked in an overarching story, giving new players the chance to hone their skills against challenging AI opponents.

Y&Y is a clever, clever game. On the surface, it looks fairly straightforward and old-fashioned. The random tile draw may give the impression of a game with quite a large element of luck. The relentless conflict will have Care Bear gamers scurrying for The Kingdom of Caring. However, it is a design that has stood the test of time and offers just as much enjoyment today as the original game did over twenty years ago.

Categories: Mobile PC Review

Bad North: Jotunn Edition Mobile : The Strategy Roguelite Finds a Comfortable Home on the Touchscreen

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When Bad North was first revealed for Nintendo Switch, we were surprised it wasn’t also coming to mobile. It seemed so well suited for the small screen, with its tiny islands and snappy battles. Now that we’ve finally had a chance to try it for ourselves, we’re pleased to learn that we were correct: Bad North fits on mobile as comfortable as an old pair of pyjamas.

That’s not to say it doesn’t also work on controller-focused devices. In fact, the option to use a controller is present here, so if you don’t fancy the touchscreen and you have a controller handy, you can still play Bad North no matter where you are.

For those not familiar with the game, it’s basically a Viking-themed Fire Emblem. You participate in a bunch of small-scale battles on miniature islands under siege from Vikings. Much like in Fire Emblem, you move your units around on a grid-like map, with positioning possibly being the most essential component.

It’s not turn-based, though time does slow to a crawl whenever you select a unit. This gives you a precious few seconds to consider where you’re going to place them – which is useful, given the pace at which new Vikings appear on the scene. These guys ride in on little boats, and you’ll get a bit of a advance notice when they appear out of the fog. This gives you enough time to set up a makeshift defence.

Bad North is Like a Fire Emblem-lite, With Grid-based Combat and Perma Death

As you progress, you can assign each of your units with a class. There’s the ranged archer, the defensive spearman, and the warrior, which is a versatile sword and shield-wielding soldier that can block arrows. Each of them is strong and weak against the various different opponents you’ll face, and bringing the right team into battle becomes a serious consideration the further you get into the experience.

Warriors can block arrows, making them the best soldier to place on the frontline against archers. Spearmen will make short work of any melee units while archers are strong against everything, peppering shots from afar. The game gives you an indication of the type of units you’ll face in the next battle, which helps you to decide which units you’ll need.

In the beginning, that isn’t important as you won’t have many to choose from anyway, but as you progress through the islands you’ll recruit a bunch of new soldiers. This is essential as death is permanent in Bad North. That’s right, the soldiers you’ve raised from petty swordsman to skilled archer can die in a single misjudged battle. They may not have much personality, but it’s devastating nonetheless.

It’s also completely possible that you fail the game entirely, which means you have to start all over again. This isn’t a problem though, as the actual campaign can be beaten in as little as three hours and features randomly-generated islands. It’s designed to be replayed, and we found failure only strengthened our resolve to do better, booting up a new game immediately and cursing the fact that these soldiers, who we hadn’t grown fond of yet, would end up dying an untimely death.

It’s Incredibly Fun to Pick up and Play, Which Helps Given the Fact You’re Encouraged to Replay it

The fact it’s just so darn fun to pick up and play helps a bunch too. You can set up a whole new battle strategy in just a couple of taps, and each level is over in a handful of minutes. It simply never outstays its welcome, and you’ll earn gold from each level you complete that lets you upgrade each of your troops with new classes, skills, and various other improvements.

It’s also beautifully minimal, with gorgeous cel-shaded visuals and lots of nice little flourishes, like warriors sticking up their shields to block arrows, spearman holding their spears forward when an enemy approaches, and blood splattering the island wherever a battle was fought. These visual touches support the gameplay too, as little is taught to you. You’ll learn enemy strengths and weaknesses by just watching them in battle.

We literally haven’t got a bad word to say about Bad North. It’s a delightfully well-paced strategy roguelike that’s as fresh on your first run as it is on your 10th, with new features, enemies, skills, and troops drip-fed to you as you play. You’ll constantly be developing new strategies and trying to make the most of your limited number of troops.

We have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it to everyone. That premium price point won’t look so high when you’re on your 10th run.

Categories: 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

Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard – Every frog has its day

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Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard is the sequel to the greatest video game ever to feature a frog, who is also a detective, in the history of the human race. Until now, that is. As of December 9, 2019, there’s a new champion in the frog-noir genre, and it’s got all of the same arbitrary magnifying glass action that fans know and love.

The scene opens with a familiar setting: four plain walls and a lonely telephone, practically begging to be picked up and answered. Hot off his last case, Frog Detective was ready to tackle any obstacle the world could possibly throw his way. The proffered mystery was a juicy one. Frog Detective took his beautiful, toothless lips and bit on the latest lead as fast as he could.

There was a new wizard in town. This wasn’t just any wizard though. It was an invisible one. Hence the title. The thing is, the townsfolk of Warlock Woods were hoping to surprise their new neighbor with a parade in their honor, but fate had other plans in store. One sabotaged celebration and a few ground pies later, we had ourselves a bona fide mystery, and nobody was going to take that away from Frog Detective. Nobody.

In all seriousness, this newest episode basically has everything great about the original, but somehow better. If you liked that one, you’re going to have a good time. While you don’t necessarily need to play the first game to enjoy Frog Detective 2, there are some delightful callbacks and scenes of intentional deja vu. There are a ton of small touches that really make the experience shine brighter than ever. This feels like a series with legs. Specifically, frog legs.

It’s still the same dopey-yet-endearing dialogue, but the jokes feel stronger, and I laughed a whole bunch. I really enjoyed getting to know the fresh cast of characters, but I’ve been sworn into secrecy, and I was asked not to spoil them. It’s a short game, around an hour in length, and meeting folks is one of the best parts. I will, however, say that there is definitely one inclusion that got me straight up giddy, and I fully expect word to get out fast. You’ve been frogging warned.

The gameplay remains, more or less, exactly the same. You walk with WASD, left click on your mouse to interact, and right click and hold to raise up your trusty magnifying glass. You’ll talk to people who need you to find something for them and they’ll give you a reward that continues your journey. It’s far from challenging, but it works as a narrative device, and the focus here is on the story and dialogue.

The one brand new addition is the notebook. It helps you keep track of clues and progress, and you’ll even get to decorate it with adorable stickers. It’s a small thing, but it’s fun and fits the overall vibe really well.

All in all, The Case of the Invisible Wizard is a fantastic way to spend an evening, and it improves and builds on the strengths of the original in iterative but meaningful ways. Whatever happens next, I’m fully invested in this series. The price is more than fair, and it’s a unique passion project that’s so dang wholesome and smile-inducing. It’ll montage dance its way into your heart and prove that ground pies, picked up and cleaned off, can still be delicious, perfectly sanitary sources of nourishment.

Categories: 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