All posts by Arend Hart

TAPE: Unveil the Memories Review – PlayStation 4

There has been quite an influx in indie games coming out of Spain lately as part of the PlayStation Talents initiative.   As with most indie games, you have to look at them with a different eye than you would with a marquee release given the budgetary and staffing limitations.  We often find ourselves giving a little more weight toward the developers’ overall intentions of the game, while maybe giving them a little leeway on the overall execution.

That being said, Madrid-based BlackChiliGoat Studio, put a lot of heart into Tape: Unveil the Memories, delivering a fairly well-written story with solid presentation and innovative concepts, only to be weighed down with less-than-optimal gameplay mechanics that leave things a bit frustrating.

Tape: Unveil the Memories tells the story of a young girl named Iria who lives with her mother in the town of Antumbria in the 1990’s.  One night when Iria’s mother is working late, the girl discovers a mysterious VCR tape with instructions for her to play it.   On the TV she sees a grainy imager of her father – a famous horror movie director who has been missing for some time – pleading for her help.  This begins a twisted nightmarish journey in Iria’s mind where things aren’t always what they seem to be.

There’s no question that BlackChiliGoat are fans of classic horror films given the eerie B-movie style FMV scenes, and the plethora of vintage slasher VCR tapes and Fangoria-like magazines to be found amongst the scenery of the abandoned hospital in which most of Iris’ story takes place.  Tape: Unveil the Memories is an undeniable homage to the golden age of 70’s and 80’s slasher film culture, and it really provided me with feeling of nostalgia for something and sometimes I didn’t realize I was even nostalgic for.

Most of the gameplay consists of exploration – looking for clues that might lead Iria to her father.  These clues are hidden amongst the notes, photos, and items that Iria uncovers as she wanders the empty hallways and rooms in the large hospital.  Each area has a series of puzzles to be solved to move to the next area, many of which require the use of Iria’s father’s Super8-style camera that has the ability to manipulate time in three ways – pause, fast forward, or reverse.

The camera is generally used to move certain objects that for some reason or another have been deemed movable by manipulating time – which is indeed kind of confusing as to why some objects are movable and not others, but that’s exactly what we have here.  Thankfully the game highlights any objects that can be manipulated within the camera’s viewfinder. The camera can also briefly pause movement – keeping automatic doors open or freezing the game’s one and only enemy: The Monster.

The monster is this massive laser cyclops-like creature that lumbers around certain rooms on the hunt for our heroine.  Sensitive to sound and movement, and pretty much indestructible to any attack, Iria must be completely still and silent whenever the monster slunks into in the room.  If spotted, Iria’s only defense is to run like hell and try to put as much distance as possible between her and the monster, hoping to have him lose interest (which he will).  It’s a tense situation for sure, that is made only more tense by the stiff and wonky control mechanics that make maneuvering Iria a real pain under pressure.

Tape: Unveil the Memories plays from a first-person viewpoint, and the controls just don’t seem like they were polished for play using a controller.  You ever had a nightmare where you’re being chased and you can’t run, or you can’t pick up a weapon or open a door?  Well, welcome to Tape: Unveil the Memories.  Movement just feels too stiff and plodding, and simple tasks like grabbing door handles and picking up objects requires precise character alignment that the game’s controls often make difficult to achieve.  And even when you do line up correctly, the animations for grabbing objects are painfully slow.  All of this only seems to get worse when the monster is hot on your tail.   Thankfully this doesn’t happen all that often and most of the time the controls aren’t that critical.

Like I mentioned earlier, we tend to give a little leeway to indie game developers because their projects are generally infinitely more personal to them than the big-budget blockbusters are to their army of developers.  It is more than apparent that BlackChiliGoat put a lot of heart and effort into Tape: Unveil the Memories, and the result is a solid survival horror game that delivers a good narrative despite the wonky controls.

Of all the PlayStation Talents games that have come across my desk in the past few months, Tape: Unveil the Memories definitely sits toward the top of the list.

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Vagante Review – PlayStation 4

Roguelike or Roguelite?

I must admit, I’ve never really understood the minor differences that determine whether a game qualifies as one or the other, and a basic Google search will prove that most seem to have the same difficulty.  Regardless, the cult classic Vagante – originally released on the PC way back in 2014 by the three-person team Nuke Nine – is one seriously brutal nod to the early days of gaming when the D&D tabletop RPG gameplay evolved into dungeon crawling videogame RPG’s like The Bard’s Tale and Gauntlet.  After six years Vagante has made its console debut, and this is one game fans of the genre will not want to miss.

I’m going to let you know right now that these games are not my forte.  I tend to find them tedious and frustrating.  But I went into Vagante with a mostly-open mind, and I am glad that I gave it a shot.  Just please forgive me if I don’t cover every bit of RPG minutia to the detail you might be expecting, as I pretty much bumbled my way through as much as I could muster until it became simply too difficult to keep going.

Vagante is a class-based RPG, with three classes available at the start – Rogue, Mage, and Knight.  With an additional – Wildling – available later in the game.  Each class has its own unique attributes for attack speed, power, magic, and range.

The Rogue is the master of stealth and acrobatics, quick dagger attacks and archery.  The Knight is armed with a broadsword for close combat, and is tough as nails against enemy attacks.  The Mage is all about the magic – casting spells to obliterate multiple enemies at long distances. And the Wildling – well true to their name they are the berserkers of the game and use their fists to pummel enemies into submission.  Thankfully, there are plenty of weapons and spells scattered about that serve to fill the gaps rather quickly – resulting in knights who can cast some seriously wicked spells and mages who can wield a broadsword with the best of them.

The game quite literally dumps the chosen character off into what seems like a large open environment with two platforms and some bouncing square rocks.  I’m embarrassed to say it took me about fifteen minutes of trial-and-error to realize that there was absolutely nothing to be accomplished in that screen, other than to walk to the front of the cave and push up on the controller to enter the dungeon – you live you learn!

Once inside the procedurally-generated catacombs, the game treats you to a quick tutorial on the mechanics of the game – how to jump and climb, how to drop down levels, how to open boxes, how to attack enemies, how to avoid spikes, how to revive health – all the standard stuff.  Shortly thereafter you are thrown into the thick of battle with a multitude of monsters to warm up your skills.

From there, it becomes a traditional slog through the dungeons in search of a rumored treasure hidden within.  Throughout the game, characters are leveled-up sorta-semi-permanently using powerups and potions gained in their travels.  I say semi-permanent because the only thing truly permanent that I found in Vagante is death.  Yes, it’s old school die and you have to start over.  And there are certain traps which dole out insta-death, which can be frustrating as hell when you finally find yourself on a good run.  The developers tout “fair” enemies, but in my experience that was not always the case.

Vagante can be played cooperatively with up to 3 friends, either local or online. I didn’t have the opportunity to experience co-op play so I cannot really speak to it, but I would assume having friends along for the ride could help – albeit things could get a bit confusing with four player and enemies crammed in such a small gameplay area.

In terms of presentation, Vagante delivers a pretty amazing experience.  The visuals are old-school side-scrolling pixel-art similar to early Vagrant Hearts or the more recent retro title Spleunky.  While this stuff usually doesn’t float my boat, in the case of Vagante it totally works.  There’s a lot of detail hidden in the backgrounds that becomes illuminated as the character moves about with his/her torch that give the game a claustrophobic feel that is fitting of a game taking place deep within the earth.

But where Vagante’s presentation really shines is in the incredible musical score composed by Nashville musician Sam English.  It is some of the best original electronic-orchestral music I’ve heard in the last decade of gaming, and it really sets a beautiful tone to the gameplay.  I highly suggest you search up the soundtrack on SoundCloud and get a sample of what you’re in for.

I made no bones about it earlier – Rougelike or Rougelite – whatever you call it, this is not a genre of gameplay I typically enjoy.  But I can honestly say I did enjoy most of the time I spent with Vagante – until, of course, I gave up because it got just too darn hard and overwhelming.  But if you are a gamer that likes this style of game, and you like slogging through caverns and building-up characters over and over, I would highly recommend giving Vagante at try.  For $15, what do you have to lose?

Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! Review – PlayStation VR

For better or worse, I am a huge sucker for updates to classic gaming franchises.  So when I was offered the review of the newest Sam and Max PSVR game, it was without hesitation that I enthusiastically agreed to take it on.  Sam and Max have been legends of the gaming world for the better part of three decades, dating back to their first point-and-click adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road released in 1993.

The titular team consists of canine gumshoe Sam and his wisecracking bunny sidekick Max, who make up the Freelance Police detective service investigating any number of wacky events caused by otherworldly criminals.  Granted, over the years I’ve come to terms with the fact that Sam and Max games generally are not the greatest in terms of gameplay but are always enjoyable experiences due to their superb humor and clever design.  And with that I can say that This Time It’s Virtual is a classic Sam and Max experience; it might not be the best PSVR game on the market, but damn if it isn’t a fun – but sometimes frustrating – experience.

This Time It’s Virtual starts by throwing gamers into the thick of the VR space, with a missile-launcher battle against a big hydra monster in the street outside of the Freelance Police office.  This battle introduces gamers to the basics of the VR controls employed by the game, which I will say is definitely NOT the most intuitive control scheme in the VR market.  Regardless of the settings modifications, the controls are wonky and confusing, with some buttons unique to certain controllers and others mirrored across the two.  Over the handful of hours I put into playing This Time It’s Virtual, I never once felt like I had a comfortable handle on the controls – which is a shame because the game really has a lot to offer.

Back to the story – gamers step into shoes of an aspiring detective applicant to work alongside Sam and Max.  And after the initial hydra boss battle, Max doles the new guy a series of menial office tasks – making coffee, microwaving corn dogs, throwing darts (or switchblades, or axes, or swords, or Max himself), punching clowns, and shooting cockroaches.  Again, these tasks are to help familiarize the gamer with the controls which work OK, all except for the throwing motions which are about the worst in the business.  Out of the dozen or so throws, I think I hit the target three times – twice of which were ricochets off the wall or ceiling which just happened to deflect willy-nilly onto the target.  The game features a lot of throwing challenges which consistently were my lowest-scoring events.   Shooting is another story – it’s awesomely rewarding – but we’ll talk a little more about that later.

Sam and Max take the gamer to an abandoned amusement park, which is the home of Sam and Max’s new applicant training grounds.  Each attraction within the park has been transformed into a themed chain of minigames – a dangerous obstacle course, a bop-it style bomb diffusion exercise, a shooting gallery, etc.  Deaths are pretty hard to come by, but each pass garners the gamer an A-F grade that they can repeat for a better score.  Some of which are enjoyable enough for a replay, but others are so annoying there’s absolutely no reason any sane gamer would want to subject themselves to the frustration multiple times over.

After three minigame threads, gamers take part in an investigation – traveling to a location and interviewing a colorful cast of characters in an attempt to solve an overarching mystery.  It’s all pretty mundane stuff, but each is capped off with a frantic boss battle that will put the gamer’s newfound skills to the test.  After that, it’s rinse and repeat.

As alluded to earlier, the dialog really makes the game enjoyable – especially Max’s double-entendre laced quips which were funny enough that I heard my wife cracking up behind me even with the PSVR earbuds plugged firmly in my ear holes.

Visually, the game is solid insofar as the character modeling and overall environmental aesthetics.  But it is glitchy – and by glitchy I mean really, really glitchy.  For some reason, Sam wants to walk exactly wherever the character is walking – and I am serious…exactly where the gamer is. And rather than simply bumping into him, you end up inside him in some totally black hole that is impossible to avoid.  And don’t bother getting too close to any buildings, because you’ll end up in a similar black hole world that is even more disorienting and impossible to escape than being inside Sam.  There’re inaccessible alleyways that if Sam and Max step one foot in it will send them offscreen in a weird moving sidewalk style animation, and if you fall off a building’s roof you might as well restart the game rather than experience the black hole infinity drop that does happen.  I had heard about similar glitches in the earlier PC VR releases of This Time It’s Virtual, but I was really hoping they’d fixed these issues at some point in the last year or so.

Sam and Max: This Time It’s Virtual! Has a lot going for it, especially with the excellent writing but at the same time it is a glitchy mess. I can get over some of the odd clipping issues, but the throwing mechanics render those events almost unplayable.

Circuit Superstars Review – PlayStation 4

In the days of my youth, I was the absolute king of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road.  I had the game for my lightning-fast (at the time) i386 PC and mastered every inch of that game.  If I went to the arcade (Pinball Pete’s in East Lansing, MI), I could make a token last for upward of an hour, and often simply walked away with the game in progress because my friends were bored of watching me run the same 8 tracks over and over and over.

While I’m most certainly bragging about my Super Offroad skills, the real reason I’m even mentioning it, is that I am a massive fan of top-down racers, and it’s been quite a few years since I’ve found a game that has quenched my desire for the old school top-down racer.  Sure, there’s been quite a few rally-based games on the PC, but in the PlayStation universe the pickings have been slim – at least the good pickings.  I think the last really good top-down racers I played on a Sony console was Motorstorm RC (PS3, 2012).

The decade-long drought is officially over with Circuit Superstars from Mexico’s Original Fire Games and Square Enix.  This game is an absolute blast.  Straight off the bat, Circuit Superstars offers up a ton of racing options, spanning twelve racing disciplines including compact “Piccino” cars, Muscle cars, Rallycross, Super Trucks (yeah!), open-wheel Formula cars, and more. Each racing style sports unique physics that take a bit of time to fully master, making every progression fresh and every finish rewarding – especially when crossing the checkered flag behind the wheel of a lumbering Euro Truck, which is like the slightly smaller brother of an 18-wheeler semi-tractor – believe me, that one takes some time to get used to.

And while Circuit Superstars may look like a cartoony arcade racer from the 90’s, it’s actually more of a sim than the appearance lets on – requiring management of the vehicle’s health, fuel, and tire wear via controlled acceleration and cornering in an effort to avoid sacrificing precious time in pit row or worse, DNF the race because one of the three is allowed to hit zero on its meter.

Circuit Superstars keeps the playing field leveled for all racers by offering only one vehicle per discipline – with no modifications offered other than changing the livery (color scheme).  While this may seem a bit lackluster for gamers looking to build a stable of custom supercars, it really does put the emphasis on mastering one’s driving skills rather than simply grinding for upgrades.

Each course is uniquely different from the others in its discipline group, with increasing difficulty as the series progresses.  The highlight for me were the rallycross courses for the Rally Cross and Super Trucks, complete with jumps and crossovers that can really do a number on your visual perspective.

Circuit Superstars game modes includes the standard Practice (time trial), Free Play (single race), and Grand Prix (season), as well as a couple ongoing challenges like the Weekly Time Trials where online gamers vie for the best times on select circuits, and the Top Gear Time Attack that takes place on the iconic Top Gear Test Track.

Circuit Superstars offers multiplayer racing for up to four racers locally, and up to twelve online.  Online play is cross-platform.  At this point Circuit Superstars online community seems a bit sparse, and in all the online races I competed in I was the only one sporting a PS logo.  Most challengers seem to be from the PC world, even so there were absolutely no issues with lag or crashing – just quality PvP racing with a handful of friendly folks around the globe.  Does it get any better than that?

If you are a fan of old-school top-down racers, there’s no doubt that Circuit Superstars is worth the $20 price tag.  I am holding out hope that Original Fire Games and Square Enix continue to develop DLC for Circuit Superstars – not only some new racing circuits, but maybe eventually releasing a track editor.  I know it’s a longshot, but damn that would be cool.

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Way Down Review – PlayStation 4

Yet another title to hit US markets from Sony Interactive España’s PlayStation Talents initiative, Way Down is a videogame tie-in to the Sony Pictures heist thriller Way Down (aka The Vault in the US markets) set in Spain during the 2010 World Cup Championship game.  Developed by independent Spanish developer FAS3 Estudios for Spain’s Mediaset Studios conglomerate, Way Down’s presser promises as immersive, action-packed spy adventure – but what it actually delivers is a soulless and plodding collection of fetch quests and minigames that make even the slowest Hitman missions seem exciting.

Way Down puts gamers in the shoes of a band of thieves who have been assembled by an oceanographic salvage company to steal back their recently salvaged Treasure of Guadalupe from the heavily fortified vault deep within the Bank of Spain, where it is being kept upon seizure by the Spanish government.  Realizing that the 2010 World Cup Championship Game (Spain v. Netherlands) would serve as an opportune 90-plus minute distraction, the multi-talented team sets out to breech the Bank’s security while all eyes are on the game.

But while the premise of Way Down sounds rather exciting on paper, the actual execution of the videogame tie-in leaves a lot to be desired.   Way Down’s overall feel is undeniably low-budget – everything from graphics to gameplay, and everything in-between, seems at least one – if not two – console generations behind the current gen videogaming benchmarks.

Let’s start by saying that the gameplay is excruciatingly slow.  If it was not bad enough that the characters walking speed is limited to that of a lame turtle, the game is constantly bringing any semblance of action to a complete stop for the lengthy all-Spanish voiceovers.  It is a bit like playing a game of virtual red light, green light, as the action screeches to a halt every 30 seconds.  The movement and turning mechanics are overtly clunky, and actions need to be performed at spots that are often too precise for the controls to achieve – it was so poor, I had more than a few flashbacks of early-era Resident Evil frustrations while trying to position my characters properly in Way Down.

The gamer is tasked with performing the individual duties of a team of characters – each with a specific specialty.  As such, there is a lot of jumping around from character to character in prescribed order chosen by the game.  You may breech a door with Thom, then must jump into the shoes of Simon to hack the security system, only to jump to Lorraine as she sweet-talks a bank employee. All this jumping around makes the whole gameplay seem a bit chaotic, even while the game is all but holding your hand and leading you from one scripted task to the next.  Unlike Hitman, where there are any number of possible ways to complete a mission, Way Out has one way and one way only. This means that there’s little gameplay variation, and therefore the game becomes more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.

As mentioned earlier, the voiceovers are all in Spanish with English subtitles.  This normally wouldn’t be too much of an issue (I’ve enjoyed plenty of Japanese-scripted games in the past), but with Way Down the voiceovers are delivered without any emotion, or at the least any post-processing (reverb, etc.) which might give them a sense of realism rather than sounding like they are being spoken by a lifeless automaton.   Add to that the complete lack of an atmospheric backing soundtrack, and this is one of the most boring gaming experiences in gaming I have experienced in a long, long time.  I get that Way Down a stealth game, where being quiet is key – but it is also based on a studio film, and I am 100% sure the movie directors were smart enough to know that there needs to be some music in the background to set the mood.

Mechanically, Way Down is again about two generations behind the current pack.  Utilizing the long-retired fixed camera system that was popular in the late 90’s (early Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, etc.), Way Down’s gameplay is unnecessarily clumsy with movement re-orienting itself based on the angle of each camera in relation to the character.  This means you can point an analog stick to make a character walking straight down a hallway using one camera, and upon triggering the next camera the same stick alignment sends them headfirst into a wall.  This makes for some very frustrating situations, especially in the stealth levels where the gamer must sneak around moving laser lights.

The visual presentation is just as dated as the other facets of the game.  Game visuals have come a long way in the last 20 years, but Way Down’s character models, environments, and background textures are straight out of the 1990’s – too sharp, too robotic, and too bland.  And that’s even in the cutscenes, which have a definite (but I assume unintended) old school vibe to them.  It’s definitely nostalgic, but I am thinking that was not the intent of the developers.

While there have been a couple of surprisingly enjoyable releases out Sony Interactive España’s PlayStation Talents initiative, Way Down is not one of them.  Way Down is a plodding and broken game, that sticks to an all-too-linear gameplay, and delivers little-to-no character development or emotion.  The game might be a licensed tie-in to an internationally released cinematic film, but Way Down doesn’t deliver even the most basic entertainment value – and I certainly wouldn’t pay more than the cost of a $8 movie ticket, much less the $20 price tag attributed to Way Down.

Rubber Bandits Review – PlayStation 4

Fresh on the PS4 gaming scene is a raucous and whimsical multiplayer party game that pits four wobbly-bobbly crooks against each other to gather as much illicit loot and escape the scene before the cops come to lock them all away.  This multiplayer, cross-platform, online mayhem from København, Denmark’s Flashbulb Games is aptly titled Rubber Bandits, and what it lacks in gameplay depth is more than made up for in visceral entertainment.

The gameplay characters are just what you’d expect from a game bearing the name Rubber Bandits – coming in somewhat like a cross between Despicable Me’s wacky hotdog-shaped Minions and the floppy blow-up tube guy gas stations and cell phone stores put at the curb to draw attention.  This wobbliness of the characters affects the control physics as a whole – movement, momentum, accuracy, etc. – which adds a unique layer of complexity to what would otherwise be overly-simplistic gameplay.

Rubber Bandits opens in the central lobby, which happens to be a jail cell where the chosen character is housed.  Breaking out of said cell isn’t all that difficult, as the game leaves a key on the floor at the foot of the cell’s bed – but this key won’t open the door lock, instead the character can use it to melee-bash through the wall to gain entrance to a neighboring cell, or to bust out the cell’s bars and set the character off on the next gameplay level.

Rubber Bandits offers up three gameplay modes – Heist, Arcade, and Brawl – which is selected by smashing the toilet in the cell – seriously.  Each mode is intended to be played with up to four players, and can be played either locally on one monitor, or online – and yes, it supports cross-platform play with PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, and of course PS5.  Arcade is the only mode that offers any form of single-player gameplay, which it comes off as very weak without the help of other gamers or AI Bots, so gamers looking for a single-player experience will probably want to look elsewhere.

Heist is the main gameplay mode in Rubber Bandits and is mad-crazy.  It Heist, the game party will play through three 1 – 2 minute levels trying to gather up the loot that is hidden around the level and escape through the exit door once it opens.  The levels are well laid-out, and the game does an excellent job highlighting possible loot and power-up stashes, spawn points, and exit doors prior to the start of each mission.  Once the timer starts, players move their cumbersomely floppy characters around the level, grabbing various items to use as weapons which could be anything from a loaf of French baguette to a futuristic laser rifle.  Players have a finite time to grab as much cash as they can; all while beating other players to steal their cash, and doing all they can to avoid being attacked and losing their cash, until the timer goes off and everyone makes a mad dash to the escape door.

Arcade mode is similar to Heist, except rather than playing against each other, gamers team up against AI guards and police.  The idea here is for the team to use stealth to sneak by the guards and get all the loot before being arrested.  Arcade requires a lot of cooperation between the gamers – which is often easier said than done.  Again, the game does a great job marking all the areas of interest prior to starting the levels, which definitely helps familiarize one with new levels – especially online where it can be embarrassing to be the only gamer coming in new to a level you haven’t ever played before.

Brawl mode pits gamers up against each other either “every man for himself” or in two-player teams, in a deathmatch-style brawl.  Each character has three health hearts that are depleted with each blow; the last man standing wins the level.  Brawl is little more than a vehicle for gratuitous slapstick violence, but it is fun.

As I have mentioned multiple times already, Rubber Bandits supports online cross-platform play, and whenever I was able to join a gameplay party, the overall online experience was pretty much flawless with no noticeable lag or crashes, but the act of actually getting into a gameplay party often took multiple failed attempts, with the matchmaking either timing out, or crashing altogether.  Granted, we often get the download codes prior to, or very early in a game’s release window, which as you can imagine limits the amount of available players for matchmaking.  Normally this isn’t much of an issue, but with a game that leans so heavily on online multiplayer; this made it a bit hard to review.  Hopefully as more gamers give Rubber Bandits a try, the matchmaking will become less finicky.

Rubber Bandits might not stray too far from the traditional multiplayer party game genre, but the unique characters, wobbly physics, frantic gameplay, and cross-platform online functionality make it a great addition for gamers looking to have good, mindless fun with their friends.

After the Fall Review – PlayStation VR

In the few short weeks of its release, gamers far and wide are referring to Dutch Developer Vertigo Games’ newest release After The Fall as “Left 4 Dead VR” and with good reason – because for all intents and purposes, this 4-player online cross-platform zombie-shooter is about as close to Left 4 Dead as any game in the 13 years since its release.  And while this would normally elicit eyerolls from hardened L4D fans, in the case of After The Fall it is widely accepted as all-good.

So maybe it hasn’t been all good – the original PS4 release was marred with some serious issues that caused the developers to issue a statement asking gamers to hold off with installing until they could work some of the major buds out.  But once they got things sorted and gave the all-clear, gamers were introduced to one of the most exhilarating VR first-person cooperative shooter experiences yet on the PSVR.

PSVR allows gamers to use a bevy of different controller setups; DualShock4, two PlayStation Move controllers, or the underappreciated PS VR Aim controller.  Given that, I decided to go with the VR Aim controller which added some complexity to the play, but made things real as hell.

Gamers are introduced to the controls with a quick tutorial in a local arcade that serves as the hub of all the gameplay, and the area in which weapons can be permanently upgraded using Harvest Points that are acquired during the game’s missions, or what they call Harvest Runs.

The arcade is chock-full of other gamer avatars running around chatting, gesturing, and otherwise looking like an odd bunch of goofballs looking for action.  Action can be found by approaching one of the many open videogame cabinets (circa 1988) and grabbing ahold of the onscreen gun peripheral.  This kicks in the cabinet’s screen from which gamers can pick their desired Harvest Run mission, and decide whether to play the game online with three human platers, or remain offline with three bots.  Obviously, going with humans is generally the best way to keep your character alive to the end of the level, but the bots are surprisingly helpful in their own right.

After a lengthy load time, gamers are teleported to the starting point where they can purchase the requisite add-ons to add to their tool-belt; pipe bombs, health injectors, ammo, etc..  I’ll admit that this was something I had a really hard time understanding where/how to pack these items once purchased, so I generally just went into the level believing the other gamers would cover my butt when needed.  They generally did.

I’m playing this on a launch-day PS4 with a first generation PSVR setup, so the visual quality on my rig is about as basic as it gets and that being said, even for a VR game was still grainy and bland compared to some of the other VR games I’ve reviewed recently.  But for the sheer intensity and immersion, After The Fall absolutely takes the cake over most of those other games.  The pace at which the zombie waves pour out of the walls will keep gamers absolutely on their toes (or edges of seats if sitting), and when the big bad boss comes it’s an all-out scramble to keep clear and keep plugging away the various vulnerable spots.

The in-game audio is exceptional in the PSVR headset, with a very food sense of spatial surround to help gamers hear enemies approaching from all directions.  The guns pack an audible punch and the explosions are near-epic with deep bass booms.

Each Harvest Run takes about 30 minutes to complete, and if all players are wiped out it means starting from the beginning.  Keeping alive isn’t too much of a chore – given the various health and ammo restocks scattered throughout the levels, but if you get on the wrong side of a boss fight, you’ll quickly end up in the red, literally.

The game’s comfort settings are endless, giving gamers the ability to tweak settings for movement, turning, posture, and accessibility.  Gamers who like snap-turning can adjust the snap angles, and smooth-turners can tweak the speeds to minimize motion sickness.  I was able to find the perfect blend of smooth movement and turning that didn’t leave me retching, so I was a happy gamer.

The cross-platform play is seamless, with gamers sporting the icon of their chosen gameplay device over their names.  I didn’t notice any appreciable lag in gameplay with any of my co-op sessions, and everyone seemed respectful and appreciative of having other gamers to share in on the fun.

After The Fall is an exceptional VR experience that pays homage to an absolute gaming classic.  Hopefully Vertigo will continue to support After The Fall with additional levels and upgrades to give the game a long enjoyable life.

Twogether: Project Indigos Chapter 1 Review – PlayStation 4

Twogether: Project Indigos is another release from Spain’s PlayStation Talents program, this time from Madrid-based developer Flaming Llama Games.  This brief two-character teamwork-based puzzler definitely hints at burgeoning talent from its indie developers, but is ultimately weighed down by finicky controls and overused puzzle design that makes it seem more like a proof-of-concept trial rather than a full-fledged release.

Twogether: Project Indigos tells the story of a group of kids endowed with supernatural powers, who are being held against their will in the laboratories of the Hexacells Corporation.  Hexacells is using the kids to nefarious ends by harvesting the fluids from their heads, in an effort to share their supernatural powers with their rich investors.

One afternoon, something happens in the lab and two of the children are freed from their rooms; Sam, a boy with the power to teleport to wherever he can throw his Rubik’s cube, and Rafi, a girl with the power to move large objects through telekinesis.  The two meet up in a hallway and decide that if they work collaboratively, they just might have the opportunity to escape the Hexacells facility and free those that are left behind.

Each puzzle requires the use of both characters’ powers.  Sam might climb onto a box that Rafi will lift with telekinesis, putting Sam at just the right height to toss his Rubik’s Cube through a broken window, so he can teleport into the room and unlock the door from behind.  Or Rafi might lift a box to block one of the overhead radiation lights so Sam can walk underneath without being irradiated into oblivion.

The cooperative puzzles seem very unique the first few times you do them, but after a few levels they become a bit stale.  It might have helped if the characters had more than one supernatural power, but with each kid being a one-trick pony of sorts, the solutions quickly become obvious.  In fact, the after short while, any challenge comes only from the wonky controls and fussy level design, which require near-exact positioning to interact with objects or block the aforementioned lights enough so Sam doesn’t have to respawn a half-dozen times.

Looking very much like a classic 3D platformer with comic-book stylings, Twogether: Project Indigos is actually visually impressive for an indie title.   The atmospheric audio is quite impressive, with synthesized cinematic quality music thick with reverb that delivers a futuristic ambiance.  It’s only too bad that there are no voiceovers in the game – all narration and character dialogue is expressed via onscreen text. Still, other than some moody (but eerily accurate) teen speak that grates my nerves as a parent of teens, the text the job done.

As I alluded to earlier, Twogether: Project Indigos is quite short, only an hour or so of total play.  The full title includes the parenthesized “(Chapter 1)” which combined with its relatively cheap retail price of $9 is a pretty good indication that there are planned sequels to follow.

I sincerely hope that if Flaming Llama does come out with a sequel, that they take the time to make some tweaks to the controls and overall gameplay, because while Twogether definitely showcases promising possibilities, the overall experience is a bit lacking in depth.

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.