All posts by Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy is a freelance writer/artist based in Portland, Or. In addition to handling game reviews, he also writes comics, novels, and short stories. For more information feel free to check out chibicomicspdx.tumblr.com or twitter.com/chibi_mike.

Another Sight Review – PlayStation 4

Conceptually, Another Sight has a lot to offer. We’re talking about a retro-future British setting, complete with slight steampunk and fantasy elements. The game itself is centered around a young woman who can’t see, save for the world being illuminated whenever sounds are made. It’s a puzzle game at it’s core, with the mechanics themselves being an aspect of your puzzle-solving needs. The whole thing has an Alice In Wonderland feel to it, and there’s potential within to be sure.

Kit, the young woman in question, is paired with an animal sidekick- a cat that provides the much-needed sight element to the game. You’re able to switch back and forth between the two on the fly, and that’s where much of the game’s dynamics are centered. Kit and… cat… need each other to function and solve puzzles throughout the world.

This may sound cool and interesting, but there’s a rub- when the cat gets too far away from Kit and there’s no sounds being generated, the world goes dark and Kit moves slowly. Very… very… slowly. So, whenever possible, try to keep Kit and the cat somewhat close by each other as you’re progressing, otherwise you’re in for a very time-consuming slog.

As you can probably tell, I had more than a few issues with Another Sight. I dig the concept, but the execution is all off. From a narrative standpoint, the story is just compelling enough to keep you playing without ever really captivating you. Gameplay and control-wise, the game is a mess. I was immediately reminded of Brothers, a game from a few years ago from the developers of A Way Out. In that game, each of the two brothers was controlled by one of the two analog sticks. Brothers challenged you to constantly focus on the separate actions of each of your thumbs and their corresponding actions on screen, and it worked.

In Another Sight, however, the character switch must be done manually by a button press. This leaves you constantly shifting back and forth, moving Kit forward and then the cat. Kit forward. Cat. Over and over. Rinse, repeat. It grows tedious and repetitive and completely undermines the entire point of the experience purely by making you not want to keep playing if only so you don’t have to progress in increments. Add to that stilted controls, awkward animations (I don’t know what is going on with that cat’s jump), and voice acting that never quite sticks the landing, and you’ve got a budget title that’s priced just a bit too high above it’s weight class.

I really wanted to like Another Sight, but there’s just too much working against it to be a title I can fully endorse. If you’re looking for a solid side-scrolling narrative puzzle game, go back and play through Inside again.

Gang Beasts Review – Xbox One

If you’ve been on the internet for a few years, and you’re a big fan of dumb stuff inside the world of video games, there’s no way you haven’t heard of Gang Beasts. Originally released in 2014 on PC as an Early Access title, GB is a mish-mash of influences that come together to form an intentionally-messy brawler that will leave you screaming at your friends or online competitors, and laughing hysterically with frustration the entire time.

Gang Beasts can best be described as an intentionally terrible take on Smash Brothers. A group of players (locally or online) get together on a single stage and do their best with wobbling characters and unintuitive controls to toss each other out of bounds throughout the many varied levels. It’s as confusing and frustrating as it sounds, and that’s what makes the game so close to perfect and one of the best local co-op games released over the past couple of years. There are few titles out there that can get a room full of people yelling at each other like Gang Beasts.

To give you a sense for just how difficult the controls can be, especially during your first few matches, here’s a quick breakdown. A is the jump button, but only once pressed and released. Pressing the right and left shoulder buttons throw punches, but if you hold one of them down, that arm sticks to whatever it touches. B and X give gentle little kicks which really aren’t good for much of anything. Y is used to life up an object (or player). Now try picturing keeping that all in mind while running around and trying not to get hit, shoved, or grabbed. It’s ridiculous in the best way possible.

The problems with the game take the form of performance issues. During my time with GB, there were multiple frame rate drops, which can be a big problem in a game as frantic and manic as this one. Worse yet, these drops usually occur at the height of on-screen action, like when objects break or shatter, or when the players all gang up and dog pile on each other. It makes the actual enjoyment of the game lessen, which is unfortunate given how much fun there is to be had.

There are other modes that have been added to the game, such as horde and sport sims, but these aren’t what you’re coming to Gang Beasts for. You want the big, stupid, frustrating action of the core game. Stick with it, as the other modes aren’t really worth your time.

While the technical issues are unfortunate, Gang Beasts is still tons of fun, especially with local co-op. Grab some friends, a pizza, and some drinks, and get ready for an incredible evening of enjoyment.

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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Review – PlayStation 4

Having just reviewed an EDF game about 2 months ago, I can (with some authority) tell you that the series wears its design on its sleeve. Big robots. Giant insects. Janky graphics and gameplay. An over-the-top sensibility that rides the fine line of parody.

The series has grown and changed little by little over years, but by and large it is a consistent experience. The developers of Iron Rain do their best to maintain what longtime fans come to the franchise for in the first place, while at the same time attempting to add a bit more substance.

While the various class specifications have been updated, altered slightly, and had some of their traits swapped, the prowler was a personal favorite. The class allows you to spawn a rideable insect, which was a welcome change of pace from my usual jetpack go-to.

Despite these alterations, much of what you come to an EDF game fore remains intact. Given new item management and shop features, a degree of pre-planning and strategy is now needed, where as in the past the series allowed for more a more reckless approach. While these attempts at variation are welcomed, they end up falling flat.

This certain feeling of lacking extends to the story and mission structure as well. Iron Rain strives to be taken somewhat more seriously, with a greater emphasis placed on drama and high-stakes, easing off slightly on the winking and nodding from earlier titles.

Characters are more fleshed out and relatable, but all of this comes at the cost of those big, over-the-top missions and moments from earlier titles. Iron Rain never leaves you feeling in awe of the stakes, what you need to accomplish, or the scale of opposition on screen. It’s an off-balance mix of enemies that take TOO long to go down, repetitive objectives that sometimes aren’t worth the effort, and a feeling that you’ve played better versions of this game before.

Iron Rain wants to accomplish a lot, and while it does succeed in a few regards, huge chunks of the game will leave you feeling wanting. While perhaps an interesting direction for the series, its ultimate execution is flawed and could use heavy revisions. If you’re a long-time fan, there’s no reason NOT to check Iron Rain out. New players, however, may want to wait until the next time EDF unleashes its hordes of giant bugs and robots.

Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists ~Ateliers of the New World~ Review – PlayStation 4

Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists is tough to quantify or define in any real meaningful way. It’s a spin-off title of a niche series that doesn’t have a huge following in the US. On top of that, it revolves around gameplay mechanics that are a tough sell even within the RPG genre. With all of that context, you can understand why this is the textbook example of “do you like X series? Then you’ll most likely enjoy this one.” BUT, even with that caveat, there’s still nothing here that’s compelling to the point where you need to buy it this very second. Unless, of course, you already have. Let’s get into it.

You play as Nelke, and since you’re not the best when it comes to alchemy, you instead serve the people as an overseer/administrator. The bulk of the game revolves around building up the town of Westwald via management sim mechanics. Eventually the narrative shifts towards tracking down a powerful relic known as the Granzweit Tree, which just might be able to grant wishes. The main draw to the game, however, is seeing all the characters from the Atelier series gathered together for the first time ever.There’s a HUGE problem here, however; most US players are going to have no idea who most of them are, since this is a niche series that hasn’t even been completely localized. I of course had to look this information up- if you’re coming in cold to the game, none of this is going to mean anything to you, and you’re going to get nothing out of it. To be honest, I spent most of my time with the game wondering why it was brought over to the US at all. I get the feeling that the developers are looking to make a push to better-establish the brand with western audiences, but I don’t think this is the way you go about accomplishing that.

So, with the narrative not being a strong grab, is the gameplay at least enough to warrant playing through Nelke?

Not really.

The mechanics are simple and get repetitive really quick. Get materials, make goods, sell goods via shops and build up profit. From there, you set up shops and buildings near a road, wait two turns, and it’s set up/ready to start adding to the overall revenue. There are other aspects to the game, like being allowed to interact with individual alchemists, and exploring your surroundings, but there’s not much meat on those bones. Their distractions, at best- and parts of them are even fully automated, leaving you to watch the game play itself. It’s bizarre, to be polite.

Even for diehard fans of the Atelier series, I can’t suggest picking this game up. It’s time-consuming, but not in the good way, and it doesn’t really add anything vital to the mythology, nor provide an entertaining experience. If you’re looking for a fun RPG experience, or a solid town management sim, there are better options out there for your time and money.

Valley Review – Switch

Valley is a few years old now, and thankfully, it’s aged like wine. The story of an explorer stuck inside of an experimental suit searching for an artifact of the old world that grants immense power remains a lot of fun, and an experience you should definitely take part in if you haven’t already done so, or if you have no other way to play it than the Switch. With that being said, it’s not all sunshine and roses in the world of Valley- there are a few stumbles along the way that should be taken into consideration before taking that jump.

The Lifeseed is the McGuffin du jour, and you’re on the hunt for it in the 4-6 hour campaign. The majority of your time with Valley will be spent running and jumping through vast open areas. There’s the occasional bit of platforming, and even a few sections where you take on enemies, but the bulk of the game is a freeing experience that encourages being light as a feather, fast as the wind, and taking in every inch of your surroundings.The other major mechanic is taking and giving life energy to both yourself and your surroundings. By bringing the environments back to life, you’re helping to keep your ability to respawn active, and likewise there will be times when you’ll have to take from the environment for extra speed/power/etc. in order to clear large distances, take on enemies, and other similar situations.

Besides the main quest, there are collectables to uncover and writings scattered throughout the land. This is where exploring every inch of your surroundings comes into play. Despite the environments being somewhat empty, the sheer scope and vastness of them, combined with the collectables, is enough to keep you invested and hungry for discovery from moment to moment.If there’s a major downside to playing through Valley on the Switch, it’s the visuals. While the game is a few years old at this point, the graphical downgrade is still fairly obvious- perhaps even to those who haven’t played it before. It just doesn’t look as high-def as it does on other platforms. Similar to other FPS experiences like Doom, visual compromise is just something you have to accept when approaching a bigger title like this on Nintendo’s enjoyable but slightly limited platform. Certain environments appear murky and unclear, and textures can often look blurry and muddy.

While I’d normally suggest playing the game on another platform if you had the ability, Valley on the Switch is such a charming, investing experience- perhaps when played in handheld mode. As such, if you’re a new player, or looking to revisit a modern classic, give this edition a spin. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your time with it. 

Glass Masquerade Review – PlayStation 4

This is one that came at me out of nowhere.

If you asked me before playing Glass Masquerade if the world of video games needed a jigsaw puzzle sim, I would have smacked you in the face. Video games are an active participation sport- there should action, tactics, critical thinking, etc. Putting together puzzles is akin to meditation; a calming, soothing hobby best enjoyed in short bursts.

Maybe it’s the visual presentation, or the art, or maybe the overall design and how each individual element adds to the whole… whatever the case, Glass Masquerade is a title you should most definitely give a look. I’m as surprised as you are.

Glass Masquerade explores different cultures and regions, and represents them via ornate art deco collages (presented as clock backgrounds) which are then broken up into puzzles you reconstruct. With many jigsaw puzzles, the frustration in putting them together stems from several similarly-colored pieces all arranged close together (imagine a blue sky, for example).

Here, those issues don’t exist. Most of the 25 puzzles have 30-60 pieces, and each image feels like it’s hand-crafted for an enjoyable experience that cuts down on those frustrations as much as possible. It also helps that the art itself is gorgeous, and enjoyable to stare and get lost in.

What makes Glass Masquerade work is it feels like a distillation of the act of putting together a jigsaw puzzle, paired with a user experience that feels designed to be a game, as opposed to just cutting up a jpeg image and having you bang your head against the controller until the image is reconstructed. It’s soothing, relaxing, enjoyable, and beautiful.

There’s not much that can be said about Glass Masquerade past that. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s not designed to. It’s supposed to be a digital adaptation of a physical hobby, and it translates that hobby extremely well. If you’re looking for a relaxing distraction, or something to do while you catch up on YouTube videos/podcasts, definitely check this one out.

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Drowning Review – PlayStation 4

Ok, to preface everything I’m about to say, if you or someone you know is suffering from severe depression, and suicidal thoughts are starting to pop up, please seek out help. This game does deal with real-world issues, and I don’t want to come off as if I’m making light of them.

This game, unfortunately, is a case of it’s not me, it’s you. There’s not much to say about Drowning, and what there is to say isn’t particularly kind. To begin, it’s a walking sim title; a genre that is fast falling out of favor in most gaming communities. These days, if you’re going to produce a walking sim, you have to innovate on the genre in some meaningful way like What Remains of Edith Finch, or Firewatch. You wake up on an island, and proceed to walk forward. Narration text placed in the world before you reveals what appears to be an awkward relationship that begins, burns bright, and eventually turns unhealthy. That’s it.

When I say “that’s it”, I mean that’s it. You can’t really explore the space around you, there’s no hidden details in the backgrounds to keep an eye out for- nothing. You walk forward and read. The option is there to walk slightly faster by holding down X, but it doesn’t really make much difference. The game is divided into chapters, with each taking place in SLIGHTLY different environments. What’s left, then, is the text presented to you. It’s not very engaging- it makes its points early on, and drags on and on for the remaining length. You can see where the narrative is headed long before you actually get there.

Boring, low-poly speed trees pass you by endlessly. Text scrolls. That’s it. At a certain point, I became desperate for ANYTHING to happen. I tried breaking the game. Eventually, I started trying to make my own entertainment- walking backwards, reading the text backwards, staring at the sky and trying to bump my way forward without actually looking.

When chapter markers would halt progression as the next chunk loaded, I was jolted awake. I started wondering if this game was secretly Frog Fractions 3, and all I had to do was figure out how to access the weirdness. When I discovered a candy cane- placed near the end at the worst possible time considering the subject matter- I was positive I’d figured it out. But no, it was just an odd Easter egg that popped up a stray trophy for my efforts.

I’m not saying that a game like this shouldn’t exist. It’s obviously built to share a message, but, if you’re going to release a game and charge people for it (even $2.99), it actually has to provide an experience. I felt nothing but relief when I reached the end of Drowning- both that it was over and that I didn’t pay for it. You simply can’t charge people for something like this.

Earth Defense Force 5 Review – PlayStation 4

The EDF series is one of those hallmarks in gaming that is both easy to love and/or hate, depending on your sensibilities. Some praise its mindless action and overt campy tone, while others deride its budget look and feel. And yet still some think both at the same time. It’s a complicated franchise with numerous ups and downs across multiple releases.

With Earth Defense Force 5, it’s clear that the series is both looking to reclaim past glories, as well as push forward into an even campier future. As with all games, the question becomes how well did they execute on that idea?

Let’s clear up one thing right out of the gate: all EDF games are built around mindless dumb fun. If repetitive action with little (or at least inconsequential) storytelling and plot bug you (no pun intended), Earth Defense Force 5 isn’t the game for you.  The entire experience is nothing more than shooting and exploding wave after wave… after WAVE of giant bugs, monsters, robots, and flying saucers. That’s it. There’s no branching narrative, no dialog wheels, or compelling character arcs. You’re here to kill bugs and chew bubblegum… and you know how the rest goes. If you’re still reading, well… there might be something of value here for you.

While games of a slightly similar nature, like the Dynasty Warrior series, do place some emphasis on maintaining decent visuals, you’ll find none of that in EDF 5. So here, too, is another barrier to entry: If you need your games to be good-looking, steer clear. The horsepower of the PS4 isn’t used to create beautiful locations with stable draw distances. No, it’s used to put as many creepy-crawly creatures on screen as is logistically possible at the same time.

Giant bugs CROWD the screen almost at all times- you’ll kill thousands of them by the time you complete the main campaign, and if anything that’s what is most amazing about the game; it delivers on the promise of swarms of insects the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

This isn’t to say that the game is all brawn and no brains. You do have to put some thought into your objectives, planning weapon loadouts with consideration for the foes you’ll be taking on, including their rates of movement, size, weaknesses, etc.  It’s not Disgaea-levels of strategy, but still it’s there. Blindly going from mission to mission with no thought or consideration will eventually start giving you “mission failed” screens.

If there are knocks against EDF 5, they’re in the below-average visuals (sacrificed in the name of high enemy count), and the finals series of levels that both contain weird difficulty spikes and set piece events that must be memorized through trial and error, leading to numerous replays that lead to frustration and boredom.

Still, these knocks and the occasional frame rate dip aren’t enough to take away from the game’s many charms. Earth Defense Force 5 is a solid new addition to the franchise, and if you’re looking for a different experience from most of what is on display from the major studios and indie publishers alike, EDF is a series you owe it to yourself to check out.

Online and local multiplayer doesn’t hurt either, and offers a great chance for just hanging out with friends and doing something repetitive yet entertaining. Check EDF 5 out for yourself- it’s worth your time. 

GRIP Review – Xbox One

GRIP feels both familiar and new all at the same time for longtime fans of the various sub-genres of arcade racers out there. The two biggest influences I can see are Wipeout and Trackmania, both amazing titles in their own rights. While it’s an admirable job GRIP aims for in combining these titles, along with a few hints from other titles, the end result is a game that is definitely enjoyable on a base level, but never really transcends its separate components and becomes its own experience. However, that doesn’t mean GRIP is a title you should completely take a pass on.

The first thing you’ll notice about GRIP is the design of your car. It’s a tumbler-style design that allows for being flipped or even going on your side while still pushing ahead with forward momentum. Once you get moving in the game, it takes a lot to stop you in your tracks. It’s a smart design philosophy that helps keeps things fast-paced and exciting, which is vital for an arcade racer. You’d be surprised how many studios forget this; it’s why, while there may be several arcade racers out there, only a few are memorable.

The pick-ups are implemented smartly, and allow for a Mario-Kart feel at times. While sometimes victory can come down to the luck of the draw, you never get to the point where you feel cheated. Combat is one half of the design document for GRIP, and it’s in this department that the game succeeds on it’s premise. Also, I’m happy to report that the sense of speed borrowed from Trackmania carries over fairly well. There are some really blazing-fast moments in this game, and they’re really enjoyable.

So, if there’s a lot to like, what’s the problem? Well, there are a few issues that end up holding GRIP back from being a classic. First and foremost, the game just doesn’t look good. The tracks are fairly standard fair, and none of them are memorable or exciting; lots of grays and browns, and lots of tubes to loop through. This game borrows in part from Wipeout, and it could have done with drawing from its visual style as well; some bright neon? Sharp color contrasts? I’m not a designer, but I know when something is lacking.

The other main issue is what’s in a name.  GRIP’s main draw is that you can ride on any surface, from any angle. There is no right-side-up, nor upside-down. While you can loop through tubes and ride along walls, the crazy genre-pushing possibilities are never given form or even attempted. It all just feels repetitive and familiar after a while. Big, crazy visuals and game play moments could have really taken this game to the next level.  Instead; it plays it safe for almost the entire time.

There is fun to be had with GRIP, and honestly you could do far worse. If you’re looking for a mid-range arcade racer to get you by until the next big release, I say take GRIP for a spin.