All posts by Arend Hart

YUKI Review – PlayStation VR

When I was assigned the review for the incredible new “bullet hell” VR game, YUKI, I had no idea what I was in for.  As someone who thinks of the bullet hell genre as following the traditional 2D scrolling format, I wasn’t thinking about the classic third person shooters Panzer Dragoon Orta and Rez, both of which YUKI resembles in all the best ways.

The game starts in the bedroom of a young girl who is a massive fan of anime character Yuki the Space Ranger.  Armed with two PlayStation Move motion controllers, the gamer opens a toy box and pulls out a Yuki action figure, officially entering the world of YUKI as seen in the imagination of the little girl.

What commences is one of the most intense VR games to hit the PlayStation 4 in a long time.  When they say bullet hell, they really mean it.  The screen is literally filled with bullets, and Yuki’s only defense is to use her bladewings to dodge and evade, her shields to protect, and her weapons to blast her way out of the storm.

This is accomplished with the right-hand PlayStation Move controller, which controls movement, aim, and firing in an incredibly intuitive control scheme. Again, Yuki is intended to be an action figure seen in third person perspective, so the gamer is free to use every degree of freedom to twist and tilt the character, noodling her around the incoming waves.

The left-hand PlayStation Move controller controls a small ball with cat ears (think Dragonball Z or Pokeball) that is used to collect in-level power-ups, and the blue orbs that serve as in-game currency used to purchase charms that serve as resident power-ups. Thankfully, the collection ball is immune to enemy fire, because keeping Yuki safe is plenty tough on its own, but the added attention required to catch all the incoming power-ups and currency orbs is enough to leave you cross eyed.

I’ve reviewed a good number of PSVR games, and YUKI definitely rates at the top of the pack when it comes to presentation. The level design is simply amazing, with some of the most intense VR visuals I’ve ever experienced.  There’s a thousand moving parts on screen at any given time, and the vibrant colors and cool hybrid 3D/2D anime make it a simply mesmerizing experience.  And when the bosses show up, it takes on a special visual magic.

YUKI is not an easy game, and gamers will find themselves replaying levels over and over as failure means restart – but YUKI is such an amazing experience, that replaying levels seldom seems like a chore.  And the ability to garner more blue orbs and purchase more power-ups to add to your arsenal makes it all the more worth it.  And if you think YUKI doesn’t seem as “action-oriented” as other VR games, you are wrong – YUKI will leave you breathless and utterly exhausted, like you just got out of arm day at the gym.

I cannot say enough about YUKI, as it’s a fantastic game in the PSVR library and with a $20 MSRP, VR owners can hardly go wrong.

Insomnis Review – PlayStation 4

Insomis has been making the rounds on the net in various forms over the past two year, before finally achieving its 2021 release on the PS4 – which is fitting as it was produced by fledgling Barcelona-based indie developer Path Games as part of the PlayStation Talents program.

A first-person horror puzzler, Insomnis does a fairly good job delivering a generally disturbing atmosphere as the gamer explores the dilapidated (and haunted) mansion once belonging to the recently-deceased grandfather of the game’s main (and only living) character, Joe Castevet.

Upon Grandpa Roman’s death, Joe receives a message from his grandfather’s lawyer informing him that he has been bequeathed the mansion as a part of the will. Joe arrives at the mansion late at night in the midst of a storm, leaving him little more to do than to explore the eerie mansion uncovering clues that indicate a dark family history.

For an indie game, Insomnis is initially quite impressive in its overall sense of tension and vulnerability.  With only minimal lighting, tense background sound effects and music, and disturbing artwork scrawled across the walls, there is always an impending feeling that something sinister is going to happen.  Only, it doesn’t.

Seriously, other than a few jump scares scattered around – at no point is Joe in any real harm in the entirety of Insomnis.  The NPC’s are simply there for the scare factor and to provide additional clues, as they pose no threat to Joe whatsoever.

The gameplay is all about wandering the halls, entering rooms, searching drawers and cupboards for items, and solving random puzzles which help you repeat the process.  There’s a lot of backtracking to-and-fro as previously-locked doors are suddenly unlocked – most times with little-to-know no indication as to why.

I’m the kind of gamer that likes to have a good handle on what’s going on and where I should go next, and I never felt like I knew what the hell I was supposed to do next while playing Insomnis.  The result is that what started off as intriguing, quickly became irritating, and I would have completely nodded off if it weren’t for the few startling scenes of kids slamming doors or crawling across the ceiling to shock me back into consciousness.  If you ever downloaded and played Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills demo P.T. a few years ago, the demo in which you kept circling the same halls over and over waiting for something to scare the bejeezus out of you – welcome to Insomnis.

Once again, for an indie game, Insomnis does a great job with the eerie presentation.  And kudos to the Spanish developer for doing a great job translating the game to English – including the handful of voiceovers.  And even though I found a handful of the puzzles were actually quite clever, the fact that I found more interest in finding the hidden collectables than actually playing the game is a pretty good indication that the overall gameplay is lacking.

Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife Review – PlayStation VR

Swedish VR game developer Fast Travel Games – makers of Apex Construct and The Curious Case of the Stolen Pets – is back at it with yet another immersive VR experience with Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife for the PlayStation 4.  Loosely-tied on The World of Darkness table-top gaming universe, more specifically 1994’s Wraith: The Oblivion (hence the name).

Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife places gamers in the ethereal shoes of photographer Ed Miller, who as the result of a séance-gone-wrong finds himself wandering the spooky halls of Barclay Mansion as one of the restless undead – a Wraith.  Armed with newly-endowed and ever-increasing supernatural abilities, the gamer sets off to explore Barclay Mansion and uncover the mystery behind Ed’s untimely demise.

With both Apex Construct Fast Travel Games proved they were capable of delivering a solid first-person VR experience matching that of and Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife follows suit.  Utilizing the PSVR headset and two PS-Move controllers, Wraith controls like an absolute dream in 3D space.  And if you have any issues with the controls, Fast Travel offer a bevy of motion, visual, and “comfort” tuning options to make the experience more enjoyable, and hopefully less nauseating.

Movement is achieved by pressing the left PS-Move’s large central “move” button and pointing the controller in a general direction – left, right, forward, and as I realized after about a half-hour…back.  Rotation left and right is gained with the right PS-Move’s square and cross buttons, and crouching with the circle.  The triggers on each controller control grasping for each respective hand, and pressing both and flicking upward allows the gamer to remotely grab objects and “fling” them back to catch them.  One neat item is the right controller’s move button will use a special power in which Ed’s arm tattoos will glow when that arm is pointed in the direction of the next objective – this somewhat takes out the monotonous wandering Barclay Manor (and courtyard) of which there is no map.

After a quick tutorial to get familiar with the controls, Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife introduces the gamer to Barclay Manor.  While the game’s name had me expecting some gothic castle, Barclay Manor is an art deco circa from the golden era of 1920’s Hollywood.  This art style gave the game a great aesthetic reminiscent of the classic Bioshock series.

The player, as Ed, is tasked with wandering the halls of Barclay Manor finding physical clues (photos, letters, etc.) and using his camera to unlock memories that appear as ghostly floating photographs – all giving Ed a better understanding of why he (and a group of others) all died that day.

Naturally, given Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife is a horror game, expect a good share of creepy moments.  And while there are a number of jump scares, it is the overall sense of tension and anticipation of what’s coming and when that makes the game a true white-knuckle experience.  There are times where you’ll wander for minutes with nothing but the sound of your own footsteps to break up the silence, only to turn a corner and see a shadow dart off into a hallway or hear a bottle crash behind you – if that doesn’t get your heart beating out of your chest, then you are one tough customer.

While most of the apparitions are simply there to convey the story through the memory scenes, and some can deplete Ed’s life if he gets too close, the real enemies are the “spectres”.  Spectres are the most horribly deranged dead that roam the halls of Barclay Manor and can finish Ed off with a single swipe of their disgusting hands.  For the most part, the best way to deal with spectres is to be as quiet and stealthy as you can – crouching, moving slowly, even causing distractions by tossing bottles and other items to focus their intention elsewhere.  If a spectre happens to get their hands on Ed, things go black and you as the gamer will have to restart from the last save point.  This makes for a lot of physical backtracking, but thankfully any items you have in inventory remain after the reset so you don’t have to completely replay areas to get back on track.

Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife’s presentation is top-notch, with superb VR visuals, great storytelling, and absolutely fantastic voice acting.  The sound effects seem to deliver solid spatial surround, making listening all that much more of an immersive experience and definitely adds to the creepiness factor.

If there was one major knock I would have to give to Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife, it’s that there is a lot of dead time (excuse the pun) to the game.  It’s not a game where there’s a ton of onscreen action, there’s a fair amount of lonely wandering, unnecessary door opening, and backtracking that stretches out about 3 – 4 hours of actual gameplay, to about 6 – 8 hours of game time.  Regardless, the $30 price tag is well worth it if you are looking for a completely immersive VR horror experience, but I was hoping for a bit more action.

 

G-Darius HD Review – PlayStation 4

As the first horizontally-scrolling arcade shooter to feature state-of-the-art fully-3D polygonal graphics, G-Darius made major waves when Taito ported for in-home play on the original PlayStation console in 1998.  Over the years we’ve seen G-Darius pop up in various Taito Legends releases, but now we have our first high-definition remaster with G-Darius HD

G-Darius’s story is a bit convoluted – apparently the world of Amnelia is under attack from a swarm of bloodthirsty cyborgs called Thiima.  The Thiima are apparently angry over Amnelia’s prior use of the A-N (All-Nothing) superweapon to destroy the planet Blazar, and have come hell-bent on destroying any and all Amnelians as a punishment.  The Amnelian Army finds a way to use the A-N technology, combined with captured Thiiman technology to craft two Silver Hawk fighter ships to defend Amnelia from the Thiiman onslaught.  These ships are piloted by the gamer via single-player or two-player co-op.

G-Darius is a quintessential example of the side-scrolling space shoot’em up genre – with gamers piloting the Red Silver Hawk and shooting wave upon wave attacking alien ships, with each level offering up a mini-boss and ultimately a final supersized boss.  It’s fast, it’s fun, but like all shooters – G-Darius can be downright infuriating at times.

G-Darius breaks up the gameplay into a series of levels called Zones, which are named after Greek letters.  Each Zone completion offers the gamer two alternate choices for the subsequent Zone in a pyramidal branching structure that ultimately provides for five alternate endings.  If that weren’t enough gameplay, within each Zone there is an alternate pathway that can be taken to further add to the variety.  My college statistics prof will probably roll his eyes when I guestimate there are at least 45 different possible pathways through G-Darius, so no matter how many times you play through, there’s always something new to see.

While madly shooting at the incoming enemies, some will drop power-ups in the form of colored-coded balls that will enhance the shots (red), bombs (green), and shields (blue), and to wipe out all enemies on screen (gold).  There are also “Capture” balls which allow the gamer to capture enemy ships and/or mini-bosses to use them simply for extra firepower, or to use their energy to fuel alpha beam or beta beam super-weapons.

No surprise, the enemies, minions, mini-bosses, and final bosses all become increasingly difficult – if not downright impossible at times.  G-Darius makes it easier to trudge on with a near-endless stream of credits obtained via a single press of the shoulder button. Still, there were times I simply had to put the controller down for a while to catch my breath while contemplating a different attack strategy.

As mentioned, G-Darius HD is a high-definition visual remaster of the original 1997 arcade release – other than that the games are identical.  Taito includes both versions of the game (Original and HD) so gamers can compare the differences.  And while the HD remaster is at a noticeably higher-resolution than the original, it is nothing like the complete visual overhauls we’ve seen with other arcade classics in the past.  Gameplay in both is limited to a letterboxed screen-within-a-screen, and there are noticeable jaggies (I haven’t typed that in a long time) and antiquated background and special effects.  Still, there is a certain nostalgia that comes with visual like these, HD or not, so I’m willing to give it a pass for excellent gameplay.  And that’s precisely what G-Darius delivers – excellent gameplay.

For fans of shmups, G-Darius is a no-brainer.

Chernobylite Review – PlayStation 4

There is always a certain beauty to be seen in post-apocalyptic video games, TV shows, and films.  Sure, they all feature landscapes littered with destruction and detritus, but there’s also that encouraging vision of nature returning and taking back its rightful place amongst the ruins. Polish developer The Farm 51, delivers this post-apocalyptic beauty with their incredible new survival horror adventure FPS.

But while so many other franchises have gone with the “what if” with their post-apocalyptic takes on New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Tokyo, or any modern city – The Farm 51 tackles the real-life current post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Chernobyl disaster with their game, which they call Chernobylite.

There has been a lot of interest in Chernobyl lately, mostly drawn from HBO’s incredible historical drama miniseries Chernobyl (2019), which gave viewers a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain that covered up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that happened in the former USSR in 1986.  It’s only natural then than Chernobyl would begin popping back up in video games, and who would be more suited to tackle Chernobyl than a game developer situated in the former USSR’s nearest neighbor, Poland.

While Chernobylite certainly isn’t the first game to take on the area surrounding Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (see: Call of Duty Warzone), it is the most exact representation of the wasteland you will find in gaming.  The reason I can say this is The Farm 51 spent a great deal of time in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone armed with 3D scanning photogrammetry devices and software to capture and deliver the most accurate and complete depictions of the Chernobyl plant and it is surrounding area.  We’re talking from as far up as 3D drone imaging of the buildings and landscapes, right down to the actual papers and garbage that is still scattered on the floors from when the initial evacuation occurred.

And folks, these visuals aren’t just your standard gaming fare – Chernobylite churns out some of the most photorealistic visuals I have seen on my PS4 to date.  I had to take a half hour or so in the beginning to simply wander around and take it all in.  It’s simply stunning.  But enough of how the game looks – let’s talk about what it is, and how it plays.

Chernobylite tells the story of Igor, a Chernobyl nuclear physicist who after 30 years, returns to Chernobyl to search for clues of what happened Tatyana his coworker and fiancée, who disappeared shortly before the disaster.  What Igor discovers in the Exclusion Zone is a mysterious substance called Chernobylite, which allows its user to travel back in time and re-experience past events to the point that they can actually change their own past decisions and thereby change their present situations.  It’s an amazing gameplay mechanic that not only changes the outcome of a storyline, but also serves as a “retry” for failed missions.

At its heart, Chernobylite is a first person shooter (FPS), that is heavy on looting and crafting.  The looting is not only performed by the gamer, as Igor, but also by Igor’s team of allies.  Similar to an underground resistance group, these allies work with Igor to eliminate not only the dark Shadow creatures which roam the landscape in search of Chernobylite, but also the paramilitary group that is using the Chernobylite for their own nefarious purposes.  Of course, the game is also listed in the survival horror genre, so prepare for plenty of panic and fear, because The Farm 51 definitely delivers on the jump scares.

The overall play structure is somewhat open; with an obvious main storyline missions surrounded by a bevy of side missions.  There’s also a bit of resource management, as Igor must make decisions on how to divvy up loot (food, supplies) with his AI team members to help develop relationships and keep them happy and on his side.  Of course, that means Igor can also piss-off his team members, which will significantly affect their performance in the game.  In addition, there’s a training mechanic which helps build the team members’ physical stamina, mental acuity, and comradery.

I can’t even lie and say I feel like I’m at all near completion in Chernobylite.  I’ve already put in a good 10-15 hours and I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface.  And considering all of the optional side missions, crafting options, and time travel decision change opportunities, I think it would be fair to say that the replay value with Chernobylite is pretty much infinite.

Chernobylite is an amazing FPS survival horror game that just keeps giving and giving.  You owe it to yourself to check this one out – especially with an MSRP of only $30, you will definitely feel you got your money’s worth.

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Inked: A Tale of Love Review – PlayStation 4

Inked: A Tale of Love is a unique PC puzzler that has just made a console crossover.  Originally released on the PC in April of 2018, Croatian developer Somnium Games and Hong Kong publisher Relaternity Limited have delivered a captivating puzzle game that is as gorgeous in its presentation as it is unique in its gameplay.

Inked: A Tale of Love tells the story of the Nameless Hero (yes, that actually IS his name in the game) who upon returning from battle sets off on a trek with his wife Aiko in search of whatever it is that could be causing the wildlife to become ill in their beautiful land.

Each world consists of a series of switch-and-lever puzzle levels which open pathways allowing Nameless Hero and Aiko to progress through their complex world, constructed entirely of gorgeous ballpoint pen-and-paper sketches. Every now and then, the hands of Adam, aka “The Artist”, come into view as he interacts in one way or another with the environment – sometimes helping, sometimes hindering – but for the most part it’s incredibly detailed ballpoint pen line art on a white sheet of paper.  The point of each level is simple – get Nameless Hero and Aiko to the portal at the far end of the level.

Most of the switches require the use of a handful of moveable objects in the level – with Nameless Hero either by physically interacting with them (pushing/dragging), or by using Aiko’s art pen to erase and redraw them.  A typical puzzle would require Nameless Hero to redraw a level’s identified boxes, wedges (ramps), and planks so as to guide a ball from its release location to remote hole to engage a switch that extends a bridge across a chasm.  Yes, it is a bit of Marble Madness mixed with the classic board game Mousetrap, and every bit as rewarding as the two.

The game contains ten separate levels, with over 60 puzzles in total.  Most puzzles are quite easy to figure out, and even the few head-scratchers generally have a simple solution that just happened to be overlooked.  For instance, about halfway through I was stuck on one particular level knowing that somehow an interactive box (one that cannot be redrawn) needed to be up on a platform to act as a backstop for a launched ball, but it somehow took me 20 minutes to realize that I could push that box up one of the ramp segments I was using elsewhere – it sounds simple on paper, but it wasn’t so obvious on the screen.

A addition to the puzzle-based gameplay, is an optional scavenger hunt within each level for pieces of Aiko’s artwork which is hidden amongst the landscape – it may sound silly, but this was a highlight of the game for me, as I scoured every square inch of background looking for the cleverly camouflaged pieces, and I have to admit I don’t think I’ve 100-percented any of the levels’ hidden artwork.

The visual presentation isn’t the only highlight of Inked: A Tale of Love, as the audio package is equally well done.  The Narration may be a bit corny, but given that it is delivered via a soothing bedtime story-like voice, it adds a bit of polish and professionalism that many budget-titles don’t achieve.

Inked: A Tale of Love, isn’t all that challenging, but the puzzles are unique, and the presentation is top-notch, and I especially liked searching for Aiko’s hidden art.  The $10 price tag makes Inked: A Tale of Love a no-brainer for puzzle game fans.

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NeonHAT Review – PlayStation VR

Neon Hat is like a trip back to 1985 to experience the 2021 we thought the future was going to be.  If that sounds like a mind-bender then it totally fits the bill when describing Neon Hat – a mind-blowing VR racing game from Spain’s Entalto Studios that will leave players nostalgic about the golden days of CGI.

There’s no denying Neon Hat is going for the 80’s aesthetic – and boy does it achieve it.  What the developers call a “low-poly neon world” those of us who were teens in the 80’s will instantly recognize the wire-frame, vector-style graphics as themes straight out of the worlds of Tempest, Star Wars Arcade, and Disney’s cyber-epic love story Tron.  Hel, there’s even some Space Invaders and Miami Vice thrown in the mix.  It’s like a trip down memory lane inside of a VR helmet.

As mentioned, Neon Hat is a VR racing game – but not one like we’ve seen before.  Combining the flying suit of Iron Man with independent jet engine thrusters in each hand (Move controllers), Neon’s Hat’s H.A.T. operator must compete in a series of races, shooting games, and boss battles to beat the game and win the prestigious Net Races competition.  The 3D enclosed racing circuits are decorated with precisely-positioned speed boost hoops which are utterly necessary to beat the three tough competitors.

The dual-thruster control mechanics may seem intuitive during the initial tutorial runs – simply point the thrusters, pull the trigger, and go.  But as the turn become tighter, and elevation comes into play, the control mechanics quickly become a bit confusing – about the closes comparison I can think would be navigating the swimming scenes in Uncharted – the buttons make perfect sense, you keep hitting the wrong buttons under pressure.

For instance, pointing the thruster left will certainly steer you leftward, but doing so too much will most likely slam you into one of the invisible wireframe walls that defines the edge of the course, severely affecting the speed.  In order to actually turn left, you must press the circle face button while pointing left, but if held too long the speed will likewise be severely affected.  It’s a constant dance, aiming the moves, feathering the accelerator, and tapping the turn.  With proper timing there is the ability to perform a kart-racing style powerslide speed boost, but very few times did the stars ever align for that to work for me.

Neon Hat features 10 different racing circuits which can be played in any one of the three base gameplay modes – Race, Pursuit, and Extreme Derby.  Race is the standard player versus bot racers (3), Pursuit has gamers chasing Data Snatcher all while shooting down the Space Invader-themed drones that protect it.  Those two modes can be set to run at either slow, medium, or fast speeds (aka kilobyte, megabyte, and gigabyte, respectively) which really amps up the excitement.  Extreme Derby is already set to gigabyte speed, but with damage turned on for hitting walls and obstacles making it very difficult to complete.

Obviously, with the complexity of VR there is no multiplayer – it’s all gamer vs. bots – but there’s a certain old school nostalgia to that as well.  One shining star are the boss battles that pop up every three races and have a definite feel of dodging fire in a first-person Sega classic Panzer Dragoon.

As alluded to earlier, Neon Hat is a visual treat for an old school gamer like me.  Between the wireframe landscapes, the 8-bit holograms floating by, and the square-brick obstacles in the path, Neon Hat is a visual trip back in time.  The exclusive Synth-Wave soundtrack likewise elicits a nostalgic feeling, albeit thankfully more along the lines of early 2010’s Daft Punk than of 1980’s Jan Hammer.  The music is hypnotic and warm without coming across as cheesy or contrived.

I had a pretty good time playing Neon Hat.  It’s certainly not one of the best racing games on the PS4, nor is it one of the best VR games on PSVR, but as a complete package of gameplay and presentation it’s totally worth checking out because it oozes cool.  And for those old school gamers who remember this stuff, you will have blast travelling back in time to look at the future we thought would be here already.

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Fracked Review – PlayStation VR

The PSVR system has been seeing a surprise surge in quality releases as of late, and not the least of which is Fracked, the stellar new first-person shooter (FPS) from the VR-exclusive developer nDreams.  Fracked isn’t your run-of-the-mill on-rails House of the Dead style light-gun shooter that we have become accustomed to in the VR realm – it’s a full-on, free-roaming, acrobat climbing, dynamite exploding, ski-slope escaping romp that is so awesomely immersive that you just might feel like throwing up.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

Fracked is the most awesome VR game that I simply cannot play for more than 30 minutes in a sitting, because on every occasion I end up with something along the lines of seasickness, which is a real bummer because it is such an amazing experience…the game – not the seasickness.

Fracked starts off by immediately instructing gamers that the intended way to play is in the sitting position. Sitting is an absolute must, as the game’s frenetic 360° action would surely result in more than a few accidents with standing gamers.  Fracked then has players link a PlayStation Move controller to each hand (two are required) and re-center the perspective using the Start button.

It’s right about there that the basic tutorial ends, as gamers are immediately throw into a white-knuckle ski run down the side of a mountain trying to keep ahead of an ensuing avalanche.  Having played a couple VR ski games in my time, Fracked delivers one of the better attempts at capturing the thrilling excitement sport – which comes into play more than once in the game.

Upon escaping the avalanche, gamers are thrust into the traditional FPS portion of the game – armed at first with a liberated pistol, and eventually a similarly liberated SMG, gamers traverse through mountaintop factory crawling with blue-faced baddies looking for a fight.  They aren’t the smartest of foes – they run right up on you like zombies looking for brains – but they aren’t the easiest to take down either, so each wave poses a difficult, yet exhilarating, challenge.

Making things even more frenetic is the reload mechanic that has gamers slamming magazines and cocking weapons upon each reload.  At first it all feels a bit wonky, but within minutes it becomes a rhythm of shooting, slamming, cocking, shooting, etc.

Movement is managed with the Move controllers, using the face buttons on whichever controller hand isn’t currently holding a gun; If the gun is in the left hand the right hand controls movement, if the gun is in the right hand the left controls movement.  Since guns are often switched from hand to hand to help fire around corners or from cover this contextual control scheme can get a bit hard to wrap your head around.  I found it best to keep the gun in the right hand for the most part and only use the left if I really needed to grab onto something to take cover or to grab a zip line.

And then there’s the climbing – and when I say climbing, I mean Uncharted-level scaling of sheer mountain walls and monkey-bar climbing over bottomless crevasses.  In fact, the climbing is so exciting and innovative that simply watching someone else play through a climbing sequence in Fracked is almost as enjoyable as actually playing it – as they stretch grasp above, below, beside, and behind themselves in what looks like some strange 80’s aerobics arm-workout routine.

But it all was too good apparently, because it was right about 20-30 mins in I started noticing the headset fogging up, the sweat began pouring down my face, and the strange feeling that I was spinning in my seat.  The headset came off and I could hardly walk straight to the bathroom to splash cold water on me.  That first time, I was wrecked for the night – feeling like the time I’d been on a charter fishing boat all day.  I thought I had caught a bug, until the next day when I tried the game again and it all happened again.  I then decided to experiment with my 16yr old son, I said nothing and let him play through, and at about the same spot in the game he suddenly yanked the headset off and said “something’s wrong – I don’t feel right”.  We tried again the next day with the same verdict.

That being said I probably made it through about an hour and a half of the 3-hour action and all queasiness aside, I was thoroughly impressed.  Fracked is an awesome package – it looks great with its cartoon-style graphics, solid voiceovers, and a great soundtrack.  I really wish I could play more of it, and I will over time – but I’d highly suggest gamers at least take a stab at the demo and see for themselves how cool Fracked is.

Synth Riders Review – PlayStation VR

My PSVR getup has been collecting quite a bit of dust this summer, so it was a real chore to get all the cords and cameras and controllers set up again to give the newest rhythm/dance/exercise title Synth Riders a go. But oh boy was it worth it, because Synth Riders might be the best game for the PSVR this side of Astro Bot.

First off – I already can hear you the grumblings of “it looks like Beat Saber” – and yes at first glance there are a lot of similarities between the two VR-based rhythm/dance/exercise titles.  But with only a few minutes of playing, it becomes obvious that Synth Riders is far more about mastering the groove and becoming one with the music, than it is about hacking and slashing your way through a grueling workout.  Synth Riders had me feeling like I’d been transported into a wholly-immersive universe existing somewhere dead center of the classic Rez and Frequency, and maybe well…the world of Tron.

Gameplay is simple – using a pair of color-coded move controllers, the gamer makes contact with similarly color-coded musical notes that appear along the path.  These notes come in the form of single-note spheres to be batted, or as sustained-note rails that must be tracked as they meander up, down and around.  There are obstacles set up along the path that must be avoided by ducking or leaning, adding a bit of whole-body physicality to the groovy dance that inevitably ensues.  Of course, the score is awarded for accuracy, but the real reward is the euphoria you feel from being totally in-tune with the music.

Visually, Synth Riders is incredibly basic, but that’s perfectly OK.  I earlier alluded to the likes of Rez, Frequency, Tron, and Beat Saber, and they all fit into a similar visual aesthetic: a huge, hypnotic, neon-soaked space eliciting a feeling of being stuck inside the innerworkings of a .  Synth Riders shares many of these attributes, but with a bit more background

Offering over 50 songs out of the box (MSRP $25), with an additional 25 available via DLC, there should never be a shortage of music for gamers to enjoy.  While most of the tracks fall into the EDM genre, there are a smattering of punk and rock thrown in to spice things up a bit.  If the 25 DLC songs, they can be purchased either individually ($2 each), as part of one of a handful of multi-song packs ($8 each), or as a complete package with the original game and all the DLC ($52).

Synth Riders also offers gamers the ability to modify their gameplay from the accuracy-based “rhythm” mode, to a velocity-based “force” mode, which is more akin to the likes of Beat Saber. In force mode, it’s the speed and force used to bat the notes away that determines the score.  While this does add another dimension to the gameplay, the rhythm mode was far more rewarding.

If you couldn’t tell already, I had an absolute blast with Synth Riders – and I have to say it’s all about the VR.  If it has simply been a typical screen-based rhythm title, the simplistic visuals and repetitive gameplay probably wouldn’t have kept my interest for longer than an hour or so – but the fact that the Synth Riders universe becomes such an immersive experience under the VR headset, I found myself lost in the game’s unassuming beauty.

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