All posts by Brice Boembeke

My first memories of gaming are from when I was 5 years old and my dad got a Commodore 64. It has been almost 30 years and my passion for gaming has only grown. I play a little bit of everything, but am particularly interested in the emergent and unscripted gameplay that comes from open world, sandbox-style online multiplayer games. It is a very exciting time to be a gamer, but I still feel like the best is yet to come. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Sable Review – PC

Where do I even start? First of all, this game is beautiful and poignant. It articulates the journey we all face in a peaceful, unexpected, and inviting way. It talks about growing up and leaving home. It talks about struggling with leaving the ones you love and knowing that they want you to take those steps toward becoming who you are meant to be. It is about looking back and also longing for home. It is also about yearning for adventure and savoring the moment. It is about striving to better yourself, or define yourself. It is about appreciating those who came before and honoring tradition, while discovering your own path and following your own destiny.

This game came at a perfect time for me. I recently lost someone very close to me. This game deals with loss. The loss that is necessary in life to move forward. The sacrifice that is necessary to be whole. While playing, there were moments that spoke to me so fully that I had to just set the controller down and stare at the screen through tears.

I love this game for so many reasons. The somewhat minimalistic music, composed and performed by Japanese Breakfast, is perfectly suited to the quasi-post apocalyptic setting. Similarly, the art-style of Sable is reminiscent of retro-futuristic sci-fi comic book artwork the likes of Moebius. The day-night cycle of the world goes from bathing the world in amazingly rich and vibrant colors during the day to an almost-monotone of blue and gray at night.

As you embark on your Gliding playing as the titular character, Sable, you will encounter unique characters and fascinating stories. You will learn the mysterious lore of the alien planet that you live on. As you climb, jump, and puzzle your way through various derelict ships or constructs from a different time, you’ll feel almost like Rey from The Force Awakens scavenging bits from massive wrecks of a time long passed. Helping you with your traversal is the ability to “glide” by focusing on a powerful stone that creates a force-field of sorts around you and allows you to slowly descend, rather than fall, similar to the glider in Breath of the Wild.

You will spend a fair amount of time aboard Simoon, your hand-crafted hoverbike that you can modify and paint as you go by buying new parts from Machinists at various settlements. The hoverbike is your unwavering and constant companion in your journey, much like a horse or loyal dog. It will get you to where you need to go, smoothly arcing over the rolling sand dunes of the planet, a sensation that feels pretty good in the game, though the hoverbike has a tendency to nose-dive and crash instead of gliding smoothly after larger “jumps”. This, hopefully, will be something that is fixed or improved in time.

Your ultimate goal is to attain a new mask that identifies you as a member of whatever profession or path you choose as your own. While there is this end goal, the way you get there and the path you take along the way is completely up to you. There is no “right” way to play the game, and the individual quests are usually designed with a fairly open feel to them, giving you a real sense of freedom and discovery every step of the way.

This game is obviously a passion project by the two-person team that developed it and I think that it is one to be proud of. For anyone who is in search of a game that they can just play without any sense of urgency or tension, a game they can thoroughly enjoy and immerse themselves within, I would highly recommend Sable.

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Elite Dangerous: Odyssey Review – PC

I’ve been following the development of Elite: Dangerous for quite some time now and what a ride it’s been. I have always been infatuated with the idea of what Elite: Dangerous wanted to do. The potential was astounding. The promise was unbelievable. The vision was palpable and glorious and everything that a true sci-fi nerd wanted out of a space sim game. A fully simulated 1:1 scale model of the Milky Way Galaxy? Holy crap. Every star system explorable? Yes please. A complex, simulated background economy? What? Factions that ebb and flow through expansion, negotiations, war, and politics that can be directly influenced by the players’ actions? You’re kidding. But it’s true. It’s all true, to a certain extent.

And then there were the rumors. Wild, crazy rumors that eventually, you’d be able to walk around! You wouldn’t just be locked into the cockpit of your ship, or your SRV (the deployable ground vehicle to explore planet surfaces that was released with the Horizons expansion). No, there was promise that your Commander would be under your direct control with the ability to walk around inside space stations, interact directly with other NPC’s and players alike, and even explore planets and settlements on foot! It seemed almost too good to be true.

And for years it was. But there were still the rumors that eventually, it would come to be a reality. That day did finally come, with the release of the Odyssey expansion to the base game. And holy crap do people hate it.  Something happened. I don’t know what. Maybe it wasn’t just one thing. Maybe COVID had something to do with it. Maybe pushing something incomplete out the door to please investors had something to do with it. Maybe crunch had something to do with it. Maybe Frontier doesn’t care about making a great game anymore and is focusing their attention elsewhere. I have no idea.

What I do know is that the Odyssey expansion seems to have created more problems than it solved. Yes, you can get out of your ship and walk around stations and certain planets (only ones with no or limited atmospheres, but none yet that are heavily populated or that have lush atmospheres). But what you do on foot seems to be fairly limited to either infiltrating, attacking, or rescuing various settlements on these barren rocks, or exploring to try and find rare xenobiological samples of strange alien flora.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the fact that you can’t walk around inside your own ship, which to me seems to be a huge missed opportunity for all sorts of interesting gameplay like hands-on repairs, EVA missions to other ships, more immersive multiplayer opportunities, etc. But, as of right now, it seems that Frontier’s intentions are not to work on ship interiors in the foreseeable future.

Gone also is the option of playing this new expansion in VR, which, for many, was a huge draw for playing the game in the first place. On top of that, the look and feel of the game has seemingly changed at an almost core level. The lighting is different. Stations emit a strange and unnatural looking glow. Lights are emissive in a hazy, over-saturated kind of way. Planets took a hit, too with drastic shifts to the way that planets look both from a distance and up close.

A game that once created a sensation of flying through a simulacrum of our own galaxy has become a caricature of itself. It feels artificial and weird and broken in fundamental ways. Even under the hood, there are reports that the expansion has broken the BGS (background simulation, running all the economy, factions, politics, etc.) and that much of this is due to the fact that they’ve basically divided the game into two instances that have to remain synced until the Odyssey expansion is released to consoles as well.

But the developers assure us that they’re working on it. They understand that people aren’t happy and they’re trying to figure out what happened. Currently, as of the writing of this review, the game’s expansion sits at a “Mostly Negative” rating on Steam, which is shameful for a franchise that has been such a stalwart name in the genre for so very, very long.

I can’t help but be reminded of how I felt when the game first released. I recall being sold by the fancy words and promises of amazing things to come during the crowdfunding campaign. I believed that all of these shiny amazing things were right around the corner. That the “mile wide and an inch deep” gameplay would soon gain depth. But, I feel like I’ve been had. I feel like I was sold a lie. That the ocean keeps getting wider, but no less shallow. There is more to do in the game now than there was at the time it was originally released, but with this new expansion, it almost serves as a rude reminder of all of the things we were promised that we still have never gotten. Like, with the ability to walk would come the ability to go on a safari on a strange world and hunt alien big game, just as an example.

I know that making games is not easy. And I know that it takes time to put all of these moving pieces together and make them play nicely with each other. But I also know that with each iteration of expansions, I keep feeling like I’m just being given a fraction of what was promised, hoping that I’ll forget what it was supposed to be.

I want to love Elite Dangerous: Odyssey. As it stands right now, I don’t love it, but I still hold out hope that it will improve. I hold out hope that it was pushed out the door early and that they are still behind the scenes diligently working on adding more and improved content to deepen the pool and not just widen it more. I hold out hope that someday I’ll be able to walk around on a proper planet with vegetation, animals, and the like a la No Man’s Sky and fly around in the actual atmosphere and then land and explore. I even hold out hope that someday I’ll be able to visit a planet with cities, like Earth. But I know that those hopes are as tiny and distant as the stars in the sky.

In the end, I will say that Elite will always hold a special place in my heart. It captures some mystical aspect of space exploration and adventure that no other game of its kind has ever done before or since. It is a hopeful, amazing, grandiose attempt at creating an amazing game. It has just fallen short of the mark so many times that I wonder if it will ever make it.

Here’s to hope. Here’s to Odyssey becoming the expansion that it was meant to be. Maybe by the time it is ready to be released to consoles as well, there will be a reckoning of the code bases and things will improve. Who knows. Time will tell.   But how much time? And will there be anyone there at the end?

Cloudpunk – City of Ghosts Review – PC

Have you ever watched Blade Runner and wished, just wished that you could exist in the city for a while? Like, not as Deckard, but just in the background. Flying one of the hover cars around the city. If so, Cloudpunk is for you. This game is the perfect emulator for just that particular desire.

Cloudpunk caught me off guard. I dug its retro-esque voxel-based graphical style. I immersed myself in the rain-streaked, neon-coated vibe of the city of Nivalis. I loved the characters and their many, unexpectedly poignant stories. I found myself surprised by the subtlety by which the game created tension without violence.

The game was pretty great when it first released and then, the developers added first person modes to the walking and driving portions, which just made the experience even more immersive. It was almost like playing a brand new game.

Then, they released City of Ghosts, which is a full story expansion DLC to the base game. It is so intricately developed and written that it is essentially a sequel to the original game. For those who played the original, you can look forward to picking up with Rania, Camus, and Pashta, discovering the next chapter in their story. Additionally, you will also play as a second main character named Hayse, whose attitude and character is very different from Rania’s.

Not only is there a whole new story to engage with, but the game itself has been upgraded with some improved graphical effects. Notably, the faces of characters are more detailed now, with more, smaller voxels making up the faces, giving them more unique appearances. Also, the customization options for your HOVA (hover car) have been given a complete overhaul, allowing you to tweak the look and feel of the car to your heart’s content.

And if you enjoyed the moral and ethical dilemmas that the first game presented you, you’ll be pleased to know that there are many more where that came from. Even within the first few minutes of the game, you’re making tough calls about how to proceed.

On top of everything else, I feel like profits from the original went toward hiring a higher tier of voice actors for the DLC, because the fully voiced characters sound much more natural this time around, which was probably one of my only minor gripes with the original game.

Overall, Cloudpunk has been one of those games that I thought I’d play for a couple of hours, experience the “gimmick” and then move onto something else, but this really got under my skin with its unique style, chill but engaging gameplay, and immersive storytelling and atmosphere. I keep going back to it and now that City of Ghosts is here, I’ve got plenty more Nivalis to explore and enjoy.

I can easily and confidently recommend this title plus it’s amazing DLC to anyone, whether you’re returning to Nivalis or exploring it for the first time, it is quite a treasure of a game to add to your library.

 

Yupitergrad Review – Oculus Quest

Yupitergrad is the game that you get when you get a group of people who really want to make a game with swinging mechanics for VR that captures the feel of what it would be like to be Spider Man, but didn’t want to try and get the rights to using the Spider Man image at all. Instead, they really thought outside the box and invented their own alternate-history vision of a space-faring Soviet cosmonaut program where the way they figured out how to allow people to move around freely in Jupiter’s atmosphere was by attaching devices to both of your arms that turn your hands into suction cups attached to ropes and winches. Also, you have little jet boosters, but they’re only good for small movements in air and for moving around better underwater.

You are sent to Jupiter where there is a station that extracts gasses from the atmosphere and converts it into power. As might be expected, upon arrival, things aren’t working quite the way they’re supposed to be working. The station is in disrepair, nothing seems to be working correctly, and it seems that you are the only one around to do anything about it. What happened to the others? Who knows? They probably died trying to fix the problem, which, you will probably do a few times yourself along the way. I know I did.

The art style of Yupitergrad is very minimalistic, with surfaces being very uniformly colored in an almost cartoonish look. Blue surfaces are ones that your plunger hands are able to suction onto. There are other things that you can interact with using your plunger-guns. Yellow grates, for instance, are things that you can grapple and then pull to open, allowing you access to areas that are otherwise blocked. You can also push buttons with your suction cups.

Movement is done by alternating your arms to swing across the ceiling, attaching both cups at the same time and then pulling quickly to launch yourself very far and very fast. A combination of these two approaches is what you need to use to cross the various obstacles and puzzles that the game presents you with.

Playing in VR was quite fun and very immersive; however it did cause me to have a very strong motion-sickness type reaction that I am not used to experiencing with other VR games. I am not sure if it was just that the swinging motion caught me off guard and if I played more frequently I would get used to it, but that was my initial experience with the game as a word of warning to anyone who is prone to feeling motion-induced illness in VR games.

Aside from feeling a bit queasy, I did really enjoy the way you moved in the game, but got frustrated slightly when my character would clip with the geometry of the world and get stuck, even though I felt like I should be able to pull myself up and over an obstacle. This only happened occasionally, but it was enough to make me feel like it wasn’t as smooth as I hoped it would be.

Finding the rhythm of the swinging and learning how to control the winch of your arm by raising and lowering your arm, or by using the thumbsticks to pull the rope in or let it out to change the length of your swings was a bit of a learning curve, but after a while it began to feel very natural. I particularly enjoyed the double-stick and pull method (if that’s what it’s called…if not, that’s what it’s called now). It gives you a real sense of speed and excitement as you’re just flying through the air and then swinging again with all that momentum.

There is a campaign to the game which has a cool story that has you progressing through the station and fixing problems as you go. There is also an option to go back and replay levels to try and get fastest times with leaderboards and everything.

As far as first person swinging games go, I did enjoy Yupitergrad, particularly because it knows not to take itself seriously. Shooting suction cups at things, for some reason, never gets old. Having recently reviewed Cyber Hook, which is not a VR game (yet), I would say that this does not quite hit the same stride as Cyber Hook with regard to that feeling of speed and freedom, as most of the puzzles are in tunnels and more enclosed spaces than what you get in the other game. But, as I said before this game knows what it is and does that thing really, really well.

Jurassic World Evolution: Complete Edition Review – Switch

There are a lot of games out there that have you managing parks or cities or businesses or other institutions of one kind or another. Put “Sim” before something, or “Tycoon” after something, and there have been any number of games that have given the player the power to construct and manage the daily workings of many different things. There have even been other games that have simulated running a dinosaur park. However, Jurassic World Evolution is the only game that allows you to build and manage a park within the lore of the Jurassic Park/World franchise and enjoy all the different aspects of that world that you’ve grown to know through the movies.

Jurassic World Evolution: Complete Edition is out now for the Nintendo Switch and it gives Switch owners a chance to play the game with all of its addons and DLC right out of the box. Though the Switch is a less powerful machine than the other current gen consoles, the port of Jurassic World still looks and runs very well on the Switch. Clever uses of blur and levels of detail shifts, I think, are what help the game run as well as it does on the Switch, even in handheld mode.

You’ll start the game by going to the first of five islands in the Muertes Archipelago called Isla Matanceros, where you’ll be given the basic beginnings of a park and the funds and guidance (through contracts) to get the park off the ground and start attracting guests. You do this by building the various facilities needed to research, incubate, house, and control the dinosaurs that you’ll be creating for the park, but also the hotels, restaurants, bathrooms, and network of roads and power that will allow patrons and employees alike to traverse the public areas of the park.

You’ll also need to constantly be seeking out new genetic data to breed as many of the 68 available dinosaur species available in the game by sending dig teams to various parts of the world to find fossils that you can use to extract the genome information from. The more complete the genome you have, the more likely your dinosaur will be of reaching full incubation status.  Keeping an eye on each and every dinosaur and their needs is also important. You will need to keep them fed and healthy or else they will become much more difficult to manage. Accidentally putting carnivores in with herbivores is also inadvisable, unless you want your guests to witness a very expensive massacre.

Occasionally, forces outside of your control will affect your park as well. Extreme weather can cause electrical outages that will then weaken your ability to contain your dangerous species, sometimes resulting in their escape into the public areas of the park. Guest deaths will happen, but having units on the ready with the necessary equipment to mitigate such a disaster is part of any good park manager’s contingency plan. You will have the ability to dispatch helicopters that you can then take control of, flying them toward the escaped dinosaur and then shooting them with tranquilizer darts to disable them. You can then send in another helicopter to pick up the unconscious dinosaur and take it back to where it is supposed to be.  You will also be able to explore the parks in the iconic Jeep Wranglers and Ford Explorers from the movies, as well as being able to build and control the Gyrospheres. These unlock at later stages in the game, but it is definitely worth the effort, as they are a very cool way to be able to experience the park that you’ve spent so much time managing.

Frontier Developments is no stranger to park management games, and they have brought all of that experience to bear on this game. There is a lot of freedom given to the player to build the game in the way that you envision your perfect dino park and the more you do, the more challenging it becomes to maintain everything without losing control. But, even when that happens, when a dino breaks out of its enclosure and starts wreaking havoc on the guests, it’s an awesome moment in the game, because you feel like you’re re-enacting moments from the movies. It’s almost like that’s when the game evolves from a park management game into an action adventure game of your own design.

The Complete Edition for the Switch really brings a lot of depth and detail to the game. There are so many different dinosaurs to breed, with genetic modifications that you can research to try and make them even more unique, plus the various locations that you can unlock to build your different parks, that the game really seems pretty limitless. There is a campaign mode that will kind of walk you through the basics and get you going on the path toward success, but there are also sandbox modes that you can unlock that allow you to really get creative with how you play the game.  I think the only real downside to the game is that at its core, there really is a bit of repetitiveness to the way things go, but this is overcome by the sheer number of variables that you will end up introducing that interrupt that loop and send it off on strange new tangents as you go.

Usually, sim tycoon type games end up boring me, or frustrating me because you’ll spend a lot of time working on making something and then it either gets destroyed and you feel like all that work was for nothing, or it’ll work really well and you just kind of sit back and watch for a while until you decide you want to do something else. With Jurassic World Evolution, I feel like you’re always having to stay engaged with the park in order to keep it running smoothly and if/when something does go wrong, it isn’t a feeling of “game over” it’s more a feeling of “we’re doing this now” and you shift gears into containment mode. It’s quite an interesting twist to the tried and true format of this genre of game, in my opinion.

The fact that you get to breed and see these legendary creatures up close and watch as they go about their daily lives (which, the AI for the dinosaurs is really quite impressive to watch, as they roam for food, fight, evade, ect) is pretty awesome all by itself. But then, you get to take the happiness of the visitors into consideration and work on building an interesting, engaging park that people want to come to, as well. All the while, you’ll be taking contracts from the different divisions of the park (Science, Entertainment, and Security), all of whom have different ideas on how to make the park the best it can be. You’ll have to choose who you think has the best plan, or try and find some happy balance between all three. These, and other characters from the movies are voiced by their original actors. You’ll even hear Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neil, and Laura Dern return as the voices of their characters at various parts of the game.

All in all, I would say that I was pleasantly surprised by Jurassic World Evolution: Complete Edition on the Switch. I think it’s a great game, especially for the Switch, as a game like this lends itself very well to be played in handheld mode while you’re on a road trip or watching something on TV at the same time, or whatnot. It’s an involved game, but you don’t have to be staring at it non-stop, either. Sometimes, you can just sit back and let the park go through it’s day and hope that the electric fences hold.

Blair Witch Review – Oculus Quest

I remember when The Blair Witch Project came out in theaters in 1999. I remember the marketing campaign, leading up to the release, treating the movie as if it were a collection of found-videos put together revealing some horrific event that actually happened in the woods. I remember the feeling of unease and terror as the movie progressed, watching as the mystery of the Blair Witch slowly developed.

Something about the way that movie was told, with the “scary thing” never really being explained, really stuck with me. There was this sense of constant dread that permeated the movie. I can say, without a doubt, that the game does a fantastic job of putting that same sense of unrelenting, building terror into a video game. Playing in VR is altogether unnerving. They give you just enough of a life-line to allow you to keep convincing yourself that you’ll be alright, but creeping in the back of your mind, the whole time, is that little voice that keeps telling you that something…something is going to get you. You just don’t know what it will be, or how it will happen, or where it will come from.

Bullet is one of your main lifelines. Bullet is an awesome German Shepherd that accompanies you. It is cool to have a dog companion that you can have scout ahead, fetch things for you, follow the scent of the missing child you’re looking for, or just sit next to you so you can pet him and feel better about your situation. It is cool to have that, but they also make it a necessity, in the game. The character you play as, Ellis, suffers from some pretty serious PTSD and Bullet is one of the only things that keeps him level. If Bullet strays too far away for too long, or you get separated from him, you will begin to have an episode. The world around you will begin to shift and trick you in different ways. There will be sounds from that traumatic incident that, when you start playing, you’re not quite sure exactly what it was. But as you play, you’ll begin to learn more and more about that incident, all while exploring the forest as a member of the local search party trying to find a missing boy.

Blair Witch is an exploration game where you’re constantly on the hunt for clues. The clues you find might be helping you figure out what happened to the missing boy, or they might be clues to a bigger mystery that you begin to uncover as you roam the woods alone (except for Bullet). The game fits well into the established lore of the Blair Witch from the movies, with hints toward some of those past incidents being interwoven into your current situation as well.

Overall, I think that the tone of the game was really well-executed. I was on edge the entire time I played constantly having to remind myself that it was just a game. Being in VR makes that immersion even more intense than if it were being played on a screen. It’s harder to disengage from it if it gets to be too much. One of the only things that detracted from that total immersion, for me, was the fact that the graphics had to be somewhat flattened and simplified in order to maintain the smoother performance needed on the Oculus system. I think that this downgrade in graphics is something that most Oculus users will just understand is part of the package. What the game lacks in visual detail, however, I think it tries to make up for in added immersion. You can pet Bullet or play fetch with him using sticks that you find laying around the woods. The sound effects are spot on, making you feel like the woods go on forever around you, with the constant, eerie sounds of nature happening all around you.

Bullet is your constant companion. Like I said, he’s the thing that keeps you tied to whatever sanity you have left. But, there are times that the AI that governs Bullet goes a little screwy. When I first saw him, he was running in place with his head and shoulders clipped through the back end of a police car. There are times that he will glide or slide along the ground unnaturally, or sprint ahead at an unrealistic speed, or walk “through” you, which is really a strange sensation when you’re in VR. It seems like a small gripe, but like I said, Bullet is often your main focus in the game, so when he acts unnaturally and it draws you out of that sense of being fully immersed in the horror of the world around you, making it feel artificial, it can take away from the overall mood.

Ultimately, I think Blair Witch is a good horror game that seems to be suited really well to the VR environment. I can’t wait for the day that we don’t have to worry about graphical downgrades between versions, though, but right now I think it’s just a reality that VR users are going to have to accept as a tradeoff for the added level of immersion that you get for being able to be “in the game” versus playing it on the screen.

If you want to play a game that puts you in the forest where people have been disappearing for decades, with strange, eerie things happening all around you, or if you’re just a fan of the movies, I would recommend this game.

Rez Infinite Review – Oculus Quest

Rez Infinite was originally released for VR in 2016 on PC and Google Daydream. Originally, Rez was a game created for PlayStation 2 and Sega Dreamcast and released in 2001. Now, it is being released as a launch title for the Oculus Quest 2. I don’t recall ever playing the original Rez back in the day, but playing it on the Oculus I can say that this version has stayed faithful to the original version of the game. Now, it has been long enough since this game was originally created for the style to now be seen as truly “retro”.

The wireframe and simple geometric graphics immediately reminded me of the old arcade classics like the original Star Wars arcade and the gameplay was reminiscent of other rail shooters like Starfox 64. Now, take that gameplay and put it into a VR environment, with the world sliding past you all around and enemies coming at you from every direction. That’s what playing Rez Infinite on the Oculus is like.

One of the things that stands the experience of playing Rez Infinite apart from other rail-shooters is that destroying the enemies happens with the musical rhythm of the games incredibly cool techno soundtrack. So, as you skim along through vastly different and breathtaking 3d environments, you’ll be bopping your head along to the beat of the music as you blow up everything that comes at you, with every explosion and action adding to the depth and layers of the music.

The basic story of the game is that you are a hacker that is trying to blast your way through varying levels of cybersecurity in order to awaken an AI that is being overwhelmed by viruses. It’s pretty simple and minimalistic, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much to the experience.

I enjoyed the visuals and music of the game, but where it fell flat for me was the shooting. Instead of aiming and shooting at enemies, you basically hold the shoot button down and paint your reticle across the enemies on screen. You can simultaneously lock on to up to 8 targets at once. Releasing the shoot button will then fire at all the targets you currently have locked on. Some targets require multiple hits in different areas, but it ends up kind of feeling like you’re just waggling your controller around with the button held down until you lock onto all the things you can.

My gut feeling is that the original gameplay, designed for interaction with a standard controller, was much more challenging than it is with the freedom of moving your hand around as quickly as you want, and that decreased sense of difficulty took something out of the enjoyment of the game for me. It felt like the shooting was lightweight and oversimplified and served as almost more of a distraction than anything from the visuals and audio sensory explosion of the game.

In the end, I can see why a game like this was a breakthrough when it originally released, almost 20 years ago. I can also see why it was an amazing experience for VR when it first released four years ago. However, I think that now, while it is still a solid experience and a fun homage to an earlier style of games imported into a VR environment, I think that it is beginning to feel a bit dated, moving from “breakthrough” to “retro classic” categories. I realize that it has won countless awards in the past, but so did Pac-Man and Pac-Man VR might be fun for some, but it just isn’t what I’m looking for in a VR game.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review – Oculus Quest

I have played a lot of survival games. A lot. And one thing that has always felt a little less-than-satisfying is melee combat. But, the first time that you take a rusty shiv and plunge it into the eyeball of an approaching zombie whose arms are flailing and teeth are chomping for you, and then you see that the shiv has gotten stuck in the skull, but the zombie is still coming at you so you have to shove harder against the blade to get it to pierce the skull and actually damage the brain…wow. And then, the knife is stuck inside the now-limp corpse of this bloody zombie, covering your hands and forearms with gore, so you reach out with your free hand and grab the zombie by the hair and push-pull the blade out of the head and toss the corpse aside, only to see three more moaning undead coming for you, knowing that your knife is damaged and probably won’t last through another fight. This is the kind of melee combat that you can expect from The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners. It is brutal, terrifying, and gory.

Each kill feels like a challenge. There is a technique to it. I’ve lunged at zombies with my knife only to watch the blade skitter off the side of their head, leaving me exposed to their relentless attack. I’ve seen my knife hit them in the jaw or the neck, not hitting the all-important brain, forcing me to have to remove the weapon from a still-biting zombie, or abandon it entirely, leaving it sticking out of their body as they come at me, hungry for my flesh.

And then, on top of worrying about properly disposing of the ever-increasing hordes of zombies roaming the streets of New Orleans, you also have to worry about your health, your hunger, what time of day it is…and the bells. Oh god, the bells. Once a day, the bells ring in flooded New Orleans. And when that happens, you better hope you’re not wandering the streets. Droves of zombies will come out at that point and will be actively searching for living flesh, namely yours. Getting to safety after the bells ring is a terrifying prospect. Luckily, the bell ringing isn’t something that comes as a surprise. You wear a watch that you can check on your left wrist that is synchronized to the bells and will give you a little warning when it is getting close to that time of day when the bells are going to ring.

Another thing that the game captures really well is the weight of things. You can pick up a knife and swing it as fast as you want, but if you pick up an axe, you’ll find that even when you grip it with two hands, it has a heft behind it. Swinging the larger weapons feels powerful, but also it takes more thought because if you miss, you have to ready it again and that takes a lot more time and energy than with something smaller.

There are also ranged weapons like pistols, shotguns, bow and arrows, and more. Each of the weapons has its own unique characteristics that make them feel fun and different than the others. Shooting a bow, for example, has you placing the arrow on the string, then pulling back, aiming, and firing. The pistols allow you to fire one-handed or with the second hand supporting your aim. The reload mechanics are all really cool too. For example, the semi-auto pistol has you ejecting the magazine and sliding a new one in, followed by racking the slide, while the revolver has you ejecting the spent shells and then placing new bullets in the cylinder one at a time.

The way that you interact with the various inventory items you have is well-done also. You have two pockets, or holsters that you can attach knives, pistols, and other one-handed objects to that are on your thighs. Over your right shoulder is a slot to hang a larger weapon from, either a long rifle, shotgun, or two-handed melee weapon. Over your left shoulder is your backpack. You can just throw things over your shoulder to put things in the bag as you find them, you reach back and grab the bag off your back to go through your inventory and take things out that you might need. The bag also has an extra external slot to be able to carry one additional long item that doesn’t fit in the bag itself. Additionally, you also have a flashlight that is attached to your left chest pocket that you can either have switched on and attached, where it will basically just point straight ahead wherever you’re looking, or you can grab it and shine it around wherever you want. It will also dim and go out over time, but will recharge by shaking it, which is always eerie and fun when you’re in a dark basement with the moaning of zombies all around you. And finally, in your right chest pocket, you have your journal which is where you can track your mission progression, crafting recipes, character notes, and other things to help you keep organized.

Beyond combat, there are other survival elements that the game does a great job of building into the gameplay loop. Your character’s health is something that you have to work really hard to maintain. Through eating food or taking medicine, you will be able to bring your health and stamina back up. But, you have to be careful. Your health bar is more than just a track of hit points. You have a current health meter, but also a maximum health that can be degraded through poor health. I made the mistake of eating a Twinkie that I found on the road and it actually took maximum health away from me. Guess those things really do expire after a while.

As you explore the various parts of New Orleans, you will come across other survivors as well, some of them friendly and some not so much. The ones that are friendly will often have side quests to engage in that each have different rewards based on how you choose to complete them. In true Walking Dead fashion, many of the missions have a difficult choice to make, where it seems that neither option is a good one, but you are forced to make a choice anyway. Moral dilemmas are awesome, aren’t they?

While exploring the world, I did find that there are a few places where the scale of things seemed off. One early example is the blue mansion that you are sent to for one of the first quests to find a microphone for your radio. While exploring this house, I found that the furniture, doors and other things all seemed to be enormously oversized. The doors made me feel like I was a small child. And it wasn’t even that things were too high and I just had my settings off or something, everything was too big. The doorknobs were massive, for example. And this disparity in size really messed with my sense of depth in that space. Reaching out to grab a doorknob to open the door was awkward and I had to try a few times before I was able to actually grab it. I’m not sure if this is a problem that persists everywhere in the game, but I did particularly notice it in that location. While it was a bit off-putting, I still really enjoyed exploring that house and would not say that the scaling issues were enough for me to not enjoy the game.

The main storyline of the game does a really good job of guiding you through the various sections of the game and introducing you to the different mechanics that you’ll need to survive. However, the openness of the design is such that you can easily spend a lot of time just roaming the streets, scavenging for parts, and going back to your base (which is an old bus, by the way) to craft new weapons and other inventory items to continue surviving.

The scavenging and crafting aspects of the game are really engaging as well. There are so many different options and interesting combinations of gear that you can experiment with. You can even harvest zombie guts and cover yourself in them to hide your presence from the zombies instead of fighting them head-on. To craft recipes, you have to bring the random things you find in the world back to your base to recycle them for their component parts. An old shoe will give you bindings, for example, which is a scrap component that you need to craft other things. With these components, you have the ability to craft all the items you need to survive from weapons (melee and ranged) to medicine and food. Some recipes are not available at the start of the game and will need to be unlocked as you progress. In all, there are forty-five different craftable items for you to use.

I went into this game thinking that it would be a very simple zombie-killer game with an assortment of weapons that just focused on the gore-fest of smashing skulls. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather deep and complex survival game with an interesting story and really engaging mechanics that kept me coming back for more. I highly recommend this game to VR users who are looking for something a little more involved than most of the games that are available right now. The only downside to this game on the Quest is that, from what I’ve seen of gameplay footage from the PC version, the graphics seem to have taken a pretty significant hit in order to perform well enough on the Quest. I will say, however, that even though the graphics are a little flat and cartoonish at times, I did not feel like it detracted from the enjoyment and immersiveness of the game on the whole.

Cyber Hook Review – PC

Cyber Hook, when you break it down to its essential parts, is a game about sprinting, parkouring, and wall-running as quickly as you can toward a gate using the eponymous cyber hook that allows you to swing like Spider-Man, the ability to temporarily slow down time, and, perhaps best of all, finger-guns to blast away obstacles in your path. Yeah, I know. It’s a pretty rad game. It’s like if you combined the best parts of Mirror’s Edge, Spider-Man, Tron and maybe even a little dash of Super Monkey Ball and then coated it all in a heavy dose of outrun aesthetic.

The look and feel of the game is very cool. If you’ve seen the somewhat recent resurgence of ‘80’s inspired style, often called Sythwave, Retrowave, or Outrun aesthetic, Cyber Hook places you squarely in the middle of the most iconic of those images the whole time, surrounding you with glowing neon courses and topping the whole experience off with a heavily inspired retro soundtrack.

At release, there will be over 70 levels to challenge you on your way to becoming a true master of the cyber hook, but you won’t have access to them all right away. When you start, you will go through a set of levels where it slowly introduces you to each of the different tools available to you. As you go, you will learn how to combine your slow-time ability with your hook to increase its range just a little bit, which is just enough to save you from falling sometimes. Unlocking new levels happens with completing preceding levels, with some levels remaining unlocked until you obtain enough diamonds. Upon completion, each level awards you a rating of zero to three diamonds based on your completion time, as well as placing you on a global leaderboard of all other players who have completed that level. If you do the level again and improve your score, it will show you your new leaderboard ranking and show how much you improved. I like that there are several layers of accomplishment in the game. I felt rewarded just by completing a level, but then would want to go back and do it again to get all three diamonds, and even then you are incentivized to go back and improve in order to try and climb the leaderboard a little higher.

The level design is brilliant in Cyber Hook. Each level has a fairly clearly defined “path” that leads you toward the gate and will usually get you some diamonds. But, the levels are openly designed and the tools that are available to you are so fluid and powerful that it is very easy to take alternate routes, or to try and cut corners and create shortcuts to the end. There is no “right” way to beat the levels. It is up to you and your creativity and your comfort level with all the different things you can do that will help you find the fastest route possible.

The only thing I didn’t like about the game was that the controls are sometimes a little finicky. One specific example that frustrated me was that using the finger-guns to shoot obstacles also released the cyber hook, which seems unnecessary since the hook is in one hand and the finger guns is in the other. I would very much like to be able to shoot while swinging, but at the time of writing this, it is not possible. Ultimately, this is a really nit-picky criticism of the game and something that doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, just something that annoyed me and caused me to fail levels several times that I would otherwise not have had any issue completing.

Overall, I really enjoy Cyber Hook and hope to see it turn into a popular game with people coming up with really inventive ways of beating certain levels. Also, I would love to see more levels added, with maybe a level editor or something to allow user-created maps to be added as well. I’m not sure if that’s in the plans, but I think it would be a perfect fit for this game. Also, I think that it could be a really cool VR game, as well, though possibly motion-sickness inducing. Cyber Hook is great for anyone that wants to feel incredibly fast and that they have the power to defy gravity. I highly recommend this as a must-have for any gaming collection.