All posts by David Fox

The Serpent Rogue Review – PlayStation 5

The Serpent Rogue was developed by Sengi Games out of Ukraine and published by Team17. After a few hours, I could tell this is a flawed but fun game where I just wanted to gather more resources to research more potions so I could gather more resources. It hooked me the same way as Animal Crossing does, just with teeth.  This is a mechanics-heavy game, with clockwork systems that govern the decayed beauty in a rogue-like world. It’s a shame that some combat mechanics and difficulty spikes weigh down the fun.

After choosing the body type you want as an avatar you will be transported to a land of “in-between” where you’re introduced to a guide, Solomon. There’s not a ton of setup, but essentially, it’s up to you to deal with a very “Gannon” looking sickness that has infected the world.

You play as a warden, a cross between medieval doctor and alchemist. While you appear to be a bit small and inexperienced as a warden, it’s up to you to brew the sweet healing medicine for a sick and infected world. Although the game has combat, we’ll get into that later, but your prime way of interacting with the environment is through alchemy. Namely, the study of items found in the wild and experimentation of mixing them all together. The system reminds me of the cooking system in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but a bit more grounded and fleshed out. Overall, I dig it!

The first boss you fight will knock you on your ass, teaching you to first take the time to explore, craft, brew, and befriend some beasties before taking on anything too difficult. You’ll quickly learn, that upon each death, you’ll drop your inventory. It’s up to you to retrieve this or forfeit the contents should you die again. To keep it fresh, the “wilderness” outside of your camp has some randomization after each storm. Did I mention that the blight upon the land comes with contamination storms that reshuffle the raw materials you could scavenge and refresh the infected enemies? It’s fun to try and plan my outings in-between storms to harvest the most of whatever I was looking for.

I appreciated the art design and sound of the world, with its Halloween vibe and renaissance-fair dressing. While I did have some hiccups with the sound bed not looping very smoothly, the sound design is simple but effective. It’s not going to blow your hair back, but given stylized graphics and interface, no single element gets in the way too much.

The movement and combat are the two areas I felt the game lags behind other titles of the genre. While your character’s locomotion is fine, not being able to move the camera took some getting used to. It isn’t that I can’t accept it as a creative choice, it’s that I enjoyed the world and wanted to examine it more. I understand an unlocked camera is probably a development choice made early on, but I keep finding my character running away from enemies that were just outside my view. It requires locking onto an enemy to tell the game to keep it in frame with the main character. This can lead to some unnecessary deaths and can be frustrating if you’re trying to get your inventory back. As a further warning, the only area map I saw was in the upper right-hand corner of your HUD, and it doesn’t do a great job of showing you to the nearest exit when the storm arrives. I would love a dedicated button to pull out a map and see where I was.

The main ways to buff up your character are through alchemy research to develop stronger buffs, forging weapons, and befriending companions. The latter is a much bigger part of the game than I thought. Much of the development is through growing your town and early on you’ll have a chance to make friends with a dog who can help you in combat and carry part of your inventory. It’s important to learn as much about plants as it is to learn different companion preferences to befriend them. Often times it is the difference between life and death.

I really enjoyed the rewarding practice of picking up a new resource and studying it to learn what I could make. I appreciate how crafting is central to The Serpent Rogue’s gameplay loop not supplemental. Oftentimes, I can ignore the crafting system, but I found myself enjoying it much more than the combat or minute-to-minute beats of the game.

I will say that the combat is very simple and feels clunky. It would have been nice to have a bit more finesse in the one-on-one combat portions of the game, especially if it will be used as a gatekeeping mechanic. I have to admit that in addition to the combat not feeling very tight, it was a bit too tough for me. I will say I was not able to see as much of the game as I would have preferred because I got stuck numerous times with a difficulty spike that I could not overcome. Maybe I need to “get good” but I had to restart the game because I ran out of resources to craft a basic ax. Later, I learned that I could have killed some people in my camp and taken it from them, but I’d argue that there should be a basic set of equipment that never goes away as I lost a few hours of a save.

It’s not for everyone and the fun gameplay loop is a bit longer than in other games of the genre. I will say that the crafting and foraging mechanics are polished and fun. While I wish that, there was a bit more of an on-ramp for people who haven’t played the game before, I do see why they have developed a bit of a following. If Animal Crossing with teeth sounds like your kind of game, it’s worth the price of entry.

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Not Tonight 2 Review – PC

Your friend, Eduardo, has been arrested and detained at a protest. It’s up to his three friends to get him out! You’ll play as Malik, Kevin, and Mari and cross the fractured United States to reach Eduardo in Miami. While it’s clear the origin of the split in the game is the fictional eventuality of our political rhetoric, I believe it is fair to say, these ideologies represented are caricatured and reductive at best. If that sounds entertaining to you the gameplay is fun and rewarding. While there are too few games trying to say something thoughtful about politics, there are fewer paper simulators, and I was excited to dig in as both appeal to me as a gamer.

Developed by PanicBarn out of Somerset/London, UK, and published by No More Robots, Not Tonight 2 is certainly a believable setting should all you watch is the news and social media. While the game hang’s its hat on the topic of political commentary, it is a little too humorous to be taken as seriously as Papers, Please. Furthermore, it is difficult to not make the comparison especially as I have not played the prequel Not Tonight which deals with the post-Brexit UK and I couldn’t name another “papers” simulator. Similarities aside, this game oozes British dark humor. You’ll let out a sensible chuckle followed by a note of despair. What’s more British than that? It can feel like the game doesn’t balance humor with serious tones proportionately, but instead zigs and zags over a line and back again.

While you make your way across the split country, you’ll work gigs as a bouncer at various venues. As you guard the entrance to buildings while a line of people wait to gain entry, you’ll always have to check for the credibility and age of people’s IDs. Each destination will throw a new mechanic at you. This ranges from scanning someone’s body to detect disease to shooting down wizards riding balloons as they try to gain entry to a castle. While I was always able to quickly wrap my head around the new rules, I did find it frustrating that I wasn’t able to click through a higher volume of people waiting in line. When you do find someone to give the boot, you have to click through another dialogue box for them to tell you off and it just felt like streamlining the mechanic could have upped the fun factor. While it’s a small gripe, the only real game element is checking IDs over and over. The fun is found in managing chaos and reducing errors.

The writing is decent and I did enjoy reaching new portions of the US and getting the backstory of the decided United States. As that’s the biggest payoff, I won’t spoil the location’s story except to say that cities are not always destitute. Similar to the art direction, there is a vibrancy to each town that is pleasant but sometimes doesn’t match the tone of the setting. For example, it’s hard to take this political criticism of the US seriously when an English dullard wearing a cone on his head declares himself the new DJ of a hot club demanding you let him in. It’s not that the situation isn’t funny, I genuinely laughed when this character kept popping up, but it does undercut the statement and criticism that the game is trying to make.

As I mentioned the art direction, interface, and sound are all very polished. I didn’t have any performance hiccups and enjoyed scouring every new setting both on the over-map and at each venue for details. I particularly liked the way that the pounding music outside restaurants and clubs would become clearer when you admitted someone from the line. As the door opened, you could clearly hear the music of the setting, and then it would become muffled again as the doors closed. The game’s polish should be complimented and its attention to detail helps tell a visual story.

Not Tonight 2, like its prequel Not Tonight, seeks to prove that video games can act as a protest and criticism of politics. While I do believe this to be true, I don’t know that Not Tonight 2 is the best example. It doesn’t do a poor job of voicing valid, real-world criticisms, but it can get in its way at times. It’s a hard turn from chuckling at LARPers to people dying of a disease that seems to be spread by irritable citizens not wearing a mask. It can further take you out of the moment when a timed dialogue choice paints you into a corner or has a negative outcome. Luckily, the most fun part is reaching a new city with a different back-story and you can do this about every 10 minutes depending on how long you stay.

While I don’t think it’s for everyone, I did enjoy my time with Not Tonight 2. I am not sure I’d recommend it as an example of how art informs culture to transform people’s minds, but it is a fun indie game. My own biases aside, I would be curious to see if the game resonates more with people native to the UK given the tone and vantage point. It’s my recommendation that if you haven’t played Papers, Please go do so, and if you want more Not Tonight 2 is worth the cost of entry.

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The Ascent Review – PlayStation 5

The Ascent was absolutely built for me. I love cyberpunk dystopian settings in my RPGs and does this game deliver. Developed out of Sweden by Neon Giant and published by Curve Digital, the grimy and addicting adventure has made its way to the PlayStation 5. Originally launching in July 2021 on Microsoft and Xbox platforms via GamePass, the marketing struggled to differentiate itself from the behemoth that was Cyberpunk 2077. While launching mere weeks before the faux pas of the decade that was Cyberpunk 2077, it both bolstered excitement and stymied The Ascent’s first impression on players. With middling to high scores, I always felt that the small 12-man team at Neon Giant didn’t get their due credit for creating such an outstanding universe, and tight gameplay.

The game wastes no time throwing you into this world of corporate overlords and executive A.I. that has run amuck in creating a city based on profitable returns and climbing the literal and figurative latter. When the dominant mega-corporation, The Ascent Group, files for bankruptcy the stability of the world collapses. Power vacuum is made, and hungry competitors are eager to take control of the sprawl that is the multi-layered city. You play as an enslaved employee of the recently dismembered Ascent Group, who must survive the chaos and uncover the mystery of what caused this demise.

The gameplay is a top-down shooter where you’ll be upgrading your character with modifications, better guns, additional equipment, and stat increases. The game opens up very early on and even allows you to go up against enemies that are considerably above your weight class. I really enjoy then RPGs allow me to get my ass kicked as it raises the stakes and makes me feel like I could potentially get one over on the game should I grind out killing a tough enemy. Quests are doled out from a variety of characters each with different agendas and rewards. However, they do not deviate from your standard, “go here and shoot this” format.

It’s a bit more dynamic than typical twin-stick shooters in that the mods and equipment you choose can change your play style. I always went for a high firing rate and shotgun combo to pair with my grenades and “stasis” punch. While you can opt to duck behind cover and try to pick off enemies as they come towards you from range, I enjoyed the frenetic gunplay of managing cooldowns and dispatching enemies up close. As the story progresses, there’s little need to change up your tactics, but the world is so fun to run around in, that it never felt stale.

You’ll earn experience points and currency to upgrade and augment your character to your liking. Also, clothing and equipment are represented visually on your character, so you can run around with a Robocop arm, M.C. Hammer Pants, and a VR headset all you like. The extreme styles of equipment feel right at home in the eccentric city of tubes and neon lights.

The fidelity of the world and set pieces are a sight to behold. I loved walking around the city and reaching a new floor to uncover a whole new architectural style. There are shops and civilians milling about all with conversations about the happenings and news. It makes the world feel very real and lived in. It added so much flavor to the gameplay to hear an alien drone reassure his colleague to trust the corporations because they always know what’s best. It made me feel like a rebel, who could maybe buck the system if I just get the right shot.

With such a high fidelity of world and customization, the soundtrack and sound design compliments the visual presentation nicely.  The soundtrack is composed by Paweł Błaszczak, who you no doubt have heard in The Witcher and Dying Light. The synth and bass heavy soundtrack gave off Bladerunner vibes and does a great job of sucking you into a fight as well as allowing you to drift off looking at some interesting smokestack.

This port of the game runs much better and has been visually smoothed out compared to the launch edition. With online and local multiplayer, it’s easy to drip into other players’ games and run around together. I personally played it on easy as the game is more on the difficult side. I am still blown away at what this small team was able to produce. While the exclusivity window is now shut and the game is on the PlayStation platform, the team has had a chance to smooth out the rough edges. They’ve updated things like color schemes in the HUD to be clearer and made the game run better.

I would say that if the idea of mixing up Bladerunner with Robocop sounds like mixing peanut butter and chocolate, then jump right in. At the time of writing the game is on sale for $29.99 in the PlayStation shop and on Amazon. This is absolutely creds well spent.

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Dying Light Next-Gen Patch Review – PlayStation 5

The list of zombie games is as numerous as the shambling hoards that populate them. Techland’s 2015 open-world/FPS/parkour take on the genre had a lot to sink your teeth into. While Dying Light as a franchise is mostly in the news because of its sequel, Dying Light: Stay Human, the original has been given some TLC from the Polish development team. The big improvements are draw distance, resolution, and frame rate for the next-gen consoles. While this may be what you’d expect given the new hardware’s boost mode, developer-driven performance increases will always shake out better than anything at the system level of the PS5. It’s a welcome addition and certainly a great way to get some more buzz for Techland’s big sequel.

The hook of the original game wasn’t just the traversal system but the day-night cycle. While the streets were dangerous during the day, they are absolutely lethal after dark. This gave such a sense of weight while playing the game to get to your objective or safe room before nightfall. If you’re caught out after dark, you could run into far more powerful and dangerous enemies. When the siren rings from the home-base tower, you know to get your ass indoors or suffer the consequences. This was such a fun mechanic that had me scouring my map and considering the time of day as I planned my excursions and despite its sequel releasing recently, it’s an element the team has moved away from, and I miss it in Dying Light 2.

Despite that, this is still an excellent action game with great melee combat. You’ll upgrade items and your move-set as you progress with experience points. Eventually, you’ll wield a flaming hatchet, spring off of a high-rise with the poise of an Olympic athlete and sink your weapon into the soft skulls of the undead. Before you can though, you’ll have to gradually level up both your combat and parkour skills by doing missions or just by playing through the game. Everything you do gives you points. The story is still a bit bland, but it’s enough to motivate you through to the end. I will note that the main voice actor, Roger Smith, does an excellent job of voicing what you’re thinking at the moment.

The headlining feature of this “next-gen” patch is the video modes. My main gripe is that you cannot switch between these modes on the fly, which means that if you want to test the differences, you’ll have to reload a save, quit out to the main menu, and repeat until you are happy with the results. The new PS5 update has three video modes: Performance, Balanced, and High Resolution. While the PS4 Pro also received some shine, it can now run the game at an “improved” 30 FPS.  I cannot speak to the PS4 version as I was reviewing the patch on the PS5.

I originally sunk about 60 hours into the Xbox One version back in 2015 and found the performance lacking. While in high-insight it was the weaker port of the game, I spent many hours squinting at the screen enjoying my time but dying more than once due to poor frames and blurry visuals. But gone are the day of feeling like I’m squinting through Vaseline-covered glasses. (As an aside, I enjoyed every blurry moment of it.)

Let’s start with performance mode. You’ll get 60 FPS in Full HD resolution. If you don’t have a 4k television this is an easy choice. The extra frames shine through the most when you’re sprinting across the rooftops, running for your life. I never hit any frame dips and if I weren’t a “pixel pansy” I may have spent more time with it.

This leads us to the Balanced mode at 1440P “targeting” 60 FPS and the High-Resolution mode at 4k but bumps you down to 30 FPS. While it is certainly up to your preference, I’d recommend using the balanced mode. Despite wanting to use every pixel I own, I can’t argue with using 60 FPS in any first-person game. It feels like a generational step backwards to run a game at a locked 30 FPS in today’s age, especially on something almost 7 years old. I would also highly advise turning off Film Grain and Chromatic Aberration Effects. Both are applied quite heavily and I suspect they were originally intended to take attention away from how bad the original draw distance was in the previous versions of the game. Luckily this version comes with a 25% draw distance increase which was desperately needed.

After having spent some time in the sequel I can say that I enjoyed the city more in the original Dying Light. It feels more grounded and believable. Not that the sequel is bad by any means, I just think I felt much more compelled to find all of this city has to offer.

Dying Light was a gem when it was first released, and it has aged pretty well. While originally launching in January 2015, the game was overlooked despite positive reviews. If you’re not ready to dive into the sequel quite yet, or if it’s sitting in your backlog, now might be the time to fire it up. If that’s you, I’ll say, “Good night and good luck” and stay the hell indoors at night.

Music Racer: Ultimate Review – PlayStation 5

What do you say about a racing rhythm game that is neither a racing nor a rhythm game? Music Racer: Ultimate falls short of these classifications and the application is more of a proof of concept rather than a commercial product. From the trophies, progression system, and game modes it’s apparent that this was a good idea that at one point had wheels, but the mechanics don’t coalesce into a finished product. While the asking price is only $6.99 on PlayStation and Xbox, I’d recommend you read the criticisms carefully before purchasing, or if you’re in love with electronic music and neon visualizers then read on.

To begin with what worked, the artwork in this game oozes with the style of the 90’s neon arcade games of old. The bright lights, reminiscent cars, and retro style are fun and intriguing to the total package. Each of the 14 tracks is unique with different design elements and quirks. While I’ll get to the gameplay later, on its face, the game looks and sounds solid from a visual standpoint. However, I did have an issue where the HUD icons and menu options were slightly off my screen. Despite changing resolutions, aspect ratios, and switching TVs I was unable to resolve this issue. At the time of writing there has been no update to remedy the blemish. But it does leave a poor first impression when first loading into the game. Artwork and soundtrack aside, the gameplay is where Music Racer: Ultimate breaks down.

Let me outline the setup for each “race.” First choose a vehicle, a track, one of three repositories for music, a song, and finally one of four modes. The game has 25 cars, 14 levels, and when you chose a song the software will then generate the track, presumably based on the sound file of the song selected. The variations of difficulty are found within the four game modes. It’s important to note this order of events, as it is not curated like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Thumper. The difficulty modes are really variations of the same mode: Standard, Zen, Cinematic, and Hard. There is only one mode with a fail state, Hard; you could set your controller down for the other modes while the song played and still “finish” the level. If that is at all confusing, I was a bit confused too, as there is very little explanation as to what each of these modes are.

I want to be specific about the mechanic of generating the notes your car is attempting to sync up with rather than designing the level to sync up with the song by hand. The goal of the game is to put you into a flow of synchronizing the movements of your vehicle with the beats of the song. The problem comes when you have a program generating these beats for you, rather than building the track and level by hand. In short, the vehicle movements never synchronized with the song. It felt like I was playing Guitar Hero but with extreme lag. I even found that I scored better when I took my headphones off and attempted to beat my high score without sound. I found I was much more effective relying only on the visual rather than trying to synchronize with the music.

To make things more difficult, your car will speed up or slow down apart from your input. You are not in control of the acceleration of the vehicle. This is why I don’t think it appropriate to call Music Racer: Ultimate a racing game. Along those lines, some levels have hills and turns that you are unable to see around. You may have an obstacle whip around the corner and cause you to lose all of your currency while having done nothing “wrong” as the player.

It may sound harsh, but this is a music visualizer, not a rhythm game, and certainly not a rhythm racer. Similar to Audioshield, you have the option to enter your own music through a WebDAV server. I was unable to get this to work, but there is a repository of other people’s hosted content. Also similar to Audioshield I predict this will be shut down the second copyrighted music uploaded. While it’s a neat feature, the music industry is notorious for making examples of these situations. I didn’t find any licensed music thus far, but I have to imagine that if the game’s player base grew large enough it could become an issue.

While there is still much more I could say about the game as a commercial package, I would advise the team simply use this as a proof of concept to shop around for more funding to tighten up the beats-generating software. That being said, I’m not a developer, so I’m certainly speaking out of turn. While the art design signed a check that the gameplay couldn’t cash, I hope someone gives us more rhythm games. Gone are the days of picking up my plastic guitar and feeling like I am playing Stairway to Heaven. While I cannot recommend this title, I would steer you to Thumper for your vehicular rhythm fix.

Cyberpunk 2077 Review – PlayStation 5

Hey choomba! You know you can’t quit Night City or talking about Cyberpunk 2077! Upon release, Night City sure was burning, and despite a charming A-list actor, gorgeous art design, and the promise of customizing absolutely everything the game released to historic criticism and disappointment. Once pulled off of the PlayStation store indefinitely, Cyberpunk 2077 has released its next-gen update with the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. Besmirched CD Projekt Red wants to redeem themselves by capitalizing on that new shiny console you have.

I was one of the fortunate few to play Cyberpunk on a high-end PC. Maybe the game just made a good first impression, but I’ve always liked the game. I have also played it on the Xbox Series X and now experienced the PlayStation 5 update. Needless to say, I have spent some time in this game. While I’m not a “frames-per-second savant” nor do I don’t always have my frames counter on, I have to say that the game runs much smoother this time around for console. Furthermore, quality of life improvements have attempted to keep you more engaged with the story and not pull you out every time a quest breaks or a graphical bug pops up.

For the uninitiated, you play as “V” a character of your own creation. You can initially choose from one of three origins, Corpo, Street Kid, and Nomad. After your world comes crashing down you run off with an up-and-comer, lovable criminal named Jackie Welles. When a heist goes pear-shaped, you end of getting more than you bargained for and are forced to set out on an even more perilous quest to save yourself. While this only gives you a starting point it is a nice way to explore your character’s motivation for striking out on their own and trying to build a name from scratch.

For those of us who enjoy role-playing as much as slicing, shooting, and driving, this is an appreciated touch, but it’s not been built out from previous iterations. After a few hours, your chosen path only opens up some alternative dialogue options. That’s nothing new, but it’s your starting point for when the main story gets going and you venture out into this neon metropolis.

The latest version has a list of fixes and improvements that is a mile long, but I can say that this is a good version of the game due to the quality of life and optimization.

One such example of these improvements is the ability to skip the brain-dance tutorial. (thank the cyber-gods!) On the visual side the game has a resolution and a quality mode as well as support for the DualSense controller. While it’s not the best implementation of resistive triggers, there is something added by getting a bit of resistance when shooting a double-barreled shotgun. The games initial load is relatively quick, certainly taking advantage of the internal SSD.

The story of Cyberpunk 2077 is engaging and once it gets moving will take you through a sci-fi saga that Philip K. Dick would be proud of. The main quests usually consist of going to an area, clearing enemies, and plugging in your “USB” hand to a terminal. I’m not bashing it, sometimes there’s a rescue mission or something more cinematic and those are always more fun, but the side missions always outshined the main quest. Early on your car will be rammed by a rampant AI in control of a self-driving car. As you hunt down the other cars that became self-aware, each one answers the existential questions of self-awareness. It’s these moments of discovering the problems of the dystopian future, that make it feel so abrupt when you do encounter something broken.

The combat is still not very fun. With some rare exceptions, I didn’t see many problems I couldn’t solve with shooting. It’s frustrating when you upgraded your stealth and hacking ability only to be spotted and a large firefight breaks out. It’s clear that the design of the stealth and hacking mechanics still does not comport to the gameplay. Due to the lackluster combat it was always the narrative beats that motivated me to reload and try again.

As the story and world are still the best things about Cyberpunk, the latest update does all to get out of the way of the narrative beats. While it is improved, I still ran into several game-breaking bugs. One such example was not having a quest acknowledge when I had cleared the room of enemies. Soon after realizing that no NPC was cowering in a corner, I instantly died for no reason and was sent back to try and clear the room again. A game this size is bound to have some rough edges, but after being under the microscope for over a year at this point, I kept thinking “well that figures, it is Cyberpunk after all.”

Upon release, you had to forgive a lot to enjoy your time with Cyberpunk 2077. At this point, you have to forgive a lot less to enjoy your time, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have the odd glass of cold water thrown in your face just when you’re starting to feel like a badass. If you purchased the game previously and have been waiting for a console upgrade that makes the game “finished”, this is probably close enough. If you waited there’s a free trial of 5 hours that’s absolutely worth downloading. In that time you’ll be able to tell if the game is complete enough to make it worth your while, or if all the samurai burned down this city long ago. As for me, I love and can never quit Night City.

Primordia Review – Switch

Primordia was first released on PC in 2012 and later ported to iOS in 2016. A decade later the title is landing on Nintendo’s Switch and seeks to find a new audience. It is developed by a small team named Wormwood Studios and Published by Wadjet Eye Games. While the main story is only about seven and a half hours, there’s a lot of polish that comes through the writing, art direction, and sound design. Furthermore, the setting and lore of the game are intriguing and have a way of hooking you early which is essential to pull you through the times when the puzzle design stumbles. If you’re looking for a nice pallet cleanser from all the mammoth open-world games that are flooding Q1 of 2022, then read on.

You play as Horatio Nullbuilt a jaded robot seeking a power core to fix his ship in this point-and-click adventure. You’re accompanied by Crispin, your plucky sidekick who lightens your dower mood. After initially being raided by a big-bad who breaks in and steals your life-giving power-core, the duo decides to repair the backup-generator, rather than travel to Metropol and hunt this thief. Horatio seems hardwired to hate that city and it takes a good while until your curiosity about this city of “light and glass” is satiated by a visit.

As you’d expect from a point-and-click adventure game, you’ll spend your time listening to dialogue hints from Crispin to find, combine, and apply items to broken machines in order to progress. I’m very grateful for voiced characters in this game, as the slower pace needed some liveliness to pull me along. Solving the puzzles was either satisfyingly quick or arduously obtuse. I didn’t have too many epiphany moments but instead found myself retreading old spaces looking for what had I missed. It’s certainly a difficult balance to strike, but if you don’t enjoy scratching your head and looking at the same room for the 10th time in an hour, you won’t find any relief here.

The star of the show is the overall art design and lore. While humans are long gone, their robot-successors are left to make sense of the world. They even have a revamped religion based on Judeo-Christian scripture. At times, I wanted to just sit and look at the pixel art of the level and try to piece together how that duct-taped engine got plugged into the derelict spaceship and still worked. I enjoyed the dialogue exchanges between Crispin and Horatio and looked forward to each time I got to visit a new location.

It’s not all beautiful post-post-apocalyptic eye candy though. My two gripes are the interface and display aspect ratio. I’m of the mind that, I paid for all the pixels, and I want to use all the pixels. The game uses an aspect ratio that is slightly thinner than the widescreen. It appears a little bigger than 4:3 but not quite 16:9. I thought maybe this was just a pre-release quirk, but it seems intentional as no update on day-one has fixed it. I have tested this in both handheld and the dock, and both have bars on the left and right of the screen. To be fair, nobody is buying this game because of the graphical fidelity; it’s a pixel-art game. However, it makes a bad impression off the bat for a game that is asking $15.

My second complaint is the interface. This is a game intended for a mouse. While many adventure games have tried to bridge this gap to a controller, others have done so with less clunkiness. This is compounded by trying to decipher what an item is in my inventory is or could be combined with. Due to the nature of the graphics, when you have a component that is labeled as “rag” but looks like “smudge”, it’s hard to put together that I should combine it with something else in the world to solve a problem. When you are in-sync with the intended game design of the puzzles, the controls and interface aren’t an issue, but when some of the logical leaps to solve a problem are more obtuse, it feels like the game is holding you back from trying to iterate on a solution.

If you’re on the go and appreciate the slower adventure game, then this is a great recommendation. Just be aware that you’re in for some head-scratchers and a few clunky controls. The voice actors and art direction make some truly interesting characters and worlds. I would eagerly pick up a book set in this universe. All too often I found myself giving up and looking online to figure out what had I missed. All that said, I think $15 is a fair asking price, and if you have a long flight ahead of you, this is a solid choice.

Life is Strange Remastered Review – PC

Is your step-dad hella lame? Are your hormones raging harder than a metal band? Maybe that girl in class is making you feel strange and wonderful things? You may never actually want to go back to high school, but I sure as hell love revisiting two of my favorite Twin-Peaks meets Alfred Hitchcock adolescent adventure game of 2015. Life is Strange Remastered Collection promises a visual upgrade, improved facial animations, and quality of life fixes from the original.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before digging into the meat and potatoes. The cutscenes in both of these games seem to drop into the old framerate and pre-render of the originals. I cannot firsthand confirm this, but it is noticeable, especially in the original Life is Strange when a cutscene happens and you see the older tech. It’s similar though not as severe as switching back and forth between the new and old versions of Halo in the Master Chief Collection except, you’re not in control. For me, this is not a photo-realistic game, and I didn’t mind it. Take that with a grain of salt, because I happen to be a hella big fan of the franchise.

The original episodes of Life is Strange were released in 2015. Life is Strange: Before the Storm dropped the episode count from five to three and began releasing episodes in 2017. While it’s been seven years since the franchise was first released, the team at DeckNine and Dontnod Entertainment has upgraded to using Unreal Engine 4. While the first two games were released on Unreal Engine 3 and are still widely available, they have been repackaged into a Remastered Collection currently costing $39.99 across PlayStation, Xbox, and Steam.

As an über-fan of the original two games, I was excited to revisit Arcadia Bay and embrace my teen angst playing as Max Caulfield and Cloe Price in Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm, respectively. The promise of better animations, quality of life changes in some quests, and new character models make up the major benefits of the package. While I do think that’s on the higher end of the price range, it’s peculiar that the package omits the spin-off episode of The Awesome Adventure of Captain Spirit, as well as all 5 episodes of Life is Strange 2 as they would have benefited from the facelift and better lighting mechanics. Meanwhile, the team did just release a new iteration of the franchise in Life is Strange: True Colors in 2021. No doubt the work on this latest release in Unreal Engine 4, motivated the creation of this Collector’s Edition.

For anyone new to the franchise, these are episodic adventure games that have a stylized art direction and eclectic mixtape soundtrack. You spend your time exploring a location by talking with people, making branching tree decisions, and solving some puzzles. In Life is Strange you play as Max Caulfield, a high school photographer who rekindles a relationship with a lost childhood friend, Cloe Price. Amidst their reunion, Max discovers her ability to rewind time. In 2015, this was a unique game-mechanic to put into branching-tree narratives found in adventure games. If you didn’t like the consequences of the decisions you just made, you can rewind time and try something new. It was this mechanic and the episodic nature that initially were selling points in 2015. What truly made diehard fans of the franchise was the tone and love-it-or-hate-it-writing.

While the original game sits with an impressive 85 Metacritic score, I recall it being much more divisive due to the writing. What’s hella weird about all the Life is Strange games, is that they feel like a grownup trying to write in the voice of a teenager. The appropriation of outdated teen slang can either push you away or, in my case, add to the charm and love-ability of going on adventures with Max, Cloe, and eventually Rachel. While it’s not for everyone, you’ll know within 30 minutes whether your visit to Arcadia Bay will be charming or cringy. I believe at the time of writing you can get one episode for free from the respective stores on the original tech to see if it’s for you.  If you’re looking at a re-release of the game, I’m going to assume you see the writing as a positive, not a detractor.

Due to the plot and nature of the main narrative, the first five episodes of Life is Strange are both severe, emotional, and charming. The game pulls strong on your heartstrings, while the threat escalates from a bad premonition to life-and-death. Pressing on to the three episodes of Before the Storm, you’ll play through the referenced relationship of Cloe and Rachel Amber as the unlikely duo find each in the tempest of undergoing major family destabilization. The story in Before the Storm is flat-out a better-told story, while the mechanic of rewinding time is replaced with Cloe’s ability to antagonize someone to get her way. I remember scratching my head in 2017 as to why they would take away the rewind mechanic that held together the original Life is Strange and replace it with something so unpleasant. I felt the same way all these years later, I want the narrative quality of Before the Storm with the mechanic of rewinding time to explore all my decisions before landing on consequences I didn’t want.

The final area to discuss is the bugs, oh my, the bugs. My review copy was on PC, so I was running the games on the highest settings and never experienced frame drops. What I did find was odd audio quirks, strange reflection bugs, and odd geometry glitches. Across both games, there was a level of clunkiness that I don’t remember in the original series. Furthermore, one of the selling points was the quality-of-life improvements, yet I still ran into some auto-save issues that made me have to rewatch lengthy unstoppable cutscenes.

Bugs aside, undoubtedly the best upgrade to this package is the animations and particularly the facial animations. The added pixel count, frames, and textures are fine, but in an adventure game, they don’t help tell the story any better. What was an improvement, is the addition of improved facial capture to help hit more emotional beats as the story zigs and zags. Undoubtedly, I am the core audience for this product, I love Life is Strange and have platinumed the first two on PlayStation. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Arcadia Bay and some beloved characters. However, I struggle to see why this “collection” omits nearly half of the Life is Strange franchise.

While this is still the cheapest way to get both of the games, I don’t know why anyone who already owns the first two seasons would upgrade. The quality-of-life fixes came with more bugs than value. However, if you’re someone who wants to push pixels and frame rates, then I suppose this is the edition for you. All in all, I still love the Life is Strange formula. I think these are the two best games in the franchise by a mile, and if you’re hella crazy to revisit the emotional soundtrack and angsty high school world, then it’s a great way to spend a long weekend going back through these games.

Paper Dolls 2 Review – PlayStation 5

What do a spooky mansion, a guy searching for his daughter, and a dead lady’s birthday have in common? Answer: I don’t know either, but Paper Dolls 2 wants to blend them to get her in this psychological-horror puzzle game.  Paper Dolls 2 has been ported and localized by a longstanding and seasoned team to the latest PlayStation consoles in the West, and yet, I still struggle to understand the premise of the game. Luckily horror genres don’t require an airtight premise. While coming in reasonably close proximity to Resident Evil Village, the question remains, does Paper Dolls 2 stack up when we’re getting amazing Resident Evil remakes and franchise high watermarks?

Developed by Beijing Litchi Culture Media Co. and now ported to the PlayStation 5 by Winking Entertainment Corp., Paper Dolls 2 is a direct sequel to Paper Dolls The Original. Over the last few years, there have been more Chinese developed games being localized to the states. As stricter laws force Chinese publishers to seek other markets to stay profitable, no doubt we’ll see more Chinese games make their way into western markets. With the current asking price on the PlayStation store of $19.99, the question is, how does it compete for the almighty dollar in an already very saturated market.

You start out waking at the base of a staircase and puzzling how to get through a pair of double doors. My first thought was “I love cold opens.” I like when games let their gameplay and context do the storytelling for themselves and I assumed I’d find out what I was doing after stumbling in the dark a bit. However, after a few hours I discovered that instead of a curated slow reveal, the developers assumed I had played and understood the ending to the prequel, Paper Dolls The Original.

A bit annoyed I found myself hunting for recaps videos online to figure out what my character’s name was and how I found myself “Scooby-Dooing” around a centuries-old mansion using a modern flashlight. I soon learned that you play as Yang Ming Yuan in search of his daughter. While previously searching for her in the original game, the lord of the manor punted me down the stairs where I awoke in the beginning moments of Paper Dolls 2. While looking for her whereabouts you find yourself trapped in a haunted house. You’ll hear flashbacks and uncover a story of a troubled mistress of the manor and the drama of a performance troupe that unearths a family secret. While the group was cursed using, you guessed it, paper dolls, they were prohibited from being reincarnated and thus haunt the said mansion.

The gameplay is primarily a first-person puzzle game, wherein you’ll hunt for different objects, deduce how to use them, and unlock the progression of doors. You’ll be hunted by these damned souls who will kill you should they catch you. It’s your job to scurry to the next puzzle area and find the safety of a save room to discourage your aggressive apparitions.

Eventually, you are given a gun that you can defend yourself with, but it only has two shots before needing to reload. The puzzles are all pretty simple, but I did stutter a few times when I needed to identify Chinese characters. While a more thorough localization would have made those times fewer, the puzzles were so simplistic that I found myself just blasting through them without much challenge.

Puzzle games have a double-edged sword where, if they are too easy, the game is boring, but if they’re too hard the player feels frustrated and eventually quits. Paper Dolls 2 is firmly in the first category. Honestly, the puzzles, save rooms, and clunky controls left me feeling like I was playing a PS2 game with PS3 graphics. While sometimes using older design choices can be charming like in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, this just reminded me of how grateful I am our medium has evolved to tell better stories.

The worst offender was the locomotion speed. I don’t know how many packs-a-day Yang Ming Yuan has been smoking, but he needs to work on cardio. You move at a snail’s pace while walking and only slightly faster when “sprinting.” This is further exacerbated by either being chased or the continual backtracking to solve a puzzle. I found myself zoning out while carrying an item to a locked door to unlock it. It made it hard to feel scared in this horror game when all I wanted was to do was give this guy a shot of caffeine and move with some purpose before the ghoul catches me. The controls are further frustrating when the shooting feels tacked on and clunky.

In the first hour, I found myself really wanting this game to harken back to the settings of the Fatal Frame franchise, or early Silent Hill. Instead, I found myself rolling my eyes and cheering for the ghosts because at least they moved with some urgency. I still hold out hope for importing some unique games from Asia, but this was a miss for me. I’d say 20 bucks can get you a lot of games on the PlayStation store these days and unless you’re dying to know what happens in this sequel, you can wait for a sale.