All posts by Nick Coffman

Dune: Spice Wars Early Access Review – PC

This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.

Dune: Spice Wars, is the latest title from Shiro Games, the team behind RTS sweetheart, Northgard. A mix of RTS and 4X elements bring Dune into the 2020s. Players coming in may see the words “early access” and assume they’re in for an unbalanced, unfinished mess, a valid concern in any situation. While some aspects still need work, Shiro comes out of the gate with a strong showing and a promising glimpse of the things to come.

At first glance, Dune: Spice Wars, looks like Northgard with a desert reskin and the addition of sandworms. The player’s territory is hex-based and can be scouted with Ornithopters that can’t be targeted and can be set to auto-scout. This expedites scouting, alleviating players from having to babysit their scouting units, a normal annoyance in RTS. Players will expand across Arrakis either by combat or annex. Unlike Northgard, combat doesn’t feel good at the moment. Winning a settlement in a combat scenario feels more like a numbers game in most situations and less about the units you are pitting against the enemy. Units across the factions all have a distinct look but all feel the same when it comes to combat. Players can build cannons and use abilities, called Operations, to buff their units and nerf enemy units. These can help shift battles, but again it just feels like a numbers game and less like winning a battle due to skill.

The four playable factions all come with unique abilities. The standout for me being the Fremen’s ability to ride the sandworms. This is honestly just to make up for the fact that they don’t have access to the airfields, which serve as the fast travel for the other three factions, but it’s fun to see the creative way the developer worked around the differences. Other differences include different levels of access to the council and information across the game. For example, the Harkonnen always know the influence flows of all factions, whereas the other factions would need to use agents to gather that information).

On Arrakis, resource management is key. One wrong choice and a deficit can leave you trying to play catch up the rest of the game. Resources are mainly gained by building structures in settlements. The most important resource of all, Spice, will drive your expansion as you work to pay your rising Imperial Spice Tax. Adding additional control, players can decide how much Spice they’ll stockpile for taxes and how much they’ll sell in the markets to build up some cash (Solari). This is a great addition that I wish was available for other resources, but at least players can trade resources with other teams, who all put different values on each resource.

There are enough diplomatic systems in Spice Wars to shake a stick at. When selecting one of the four factions, players will also choose two councilors that give additional buffs for their build. It’s fun to mix-and-match these and try to find the perfect blend. A personal favorite of mine was the ability to impose any treaty on any faction for just fifty influence; a great ability if things are getting a little hot and you need an short term ally.

Influence also works its way into council votes, with recurring resolutions that all teams vote on. The more influence you hold, the more votes you get, the easier it is for you to sway the vote on certain resolutions. These give players opportunities to nerf enemies for a short amount of time or gain an advantage in resources or combat.

For more long-term upgrades, there are four skill trees, known as developments. Each tree is catered to a specific faction, but players can mix and match the upgrades they want, which can also be sped up by collecting knowledge. This adds to the variety already presented by your choice of councilors. You can focus on powering up your already buffed stats and just be a powerhouse. You can also go the other way and try to even out your weaknesses. There will be optimized builds (they’re already on the internet, I’m sure) , but I never felt like diving down one skill tree left me at a disadvantage.

Adding more layers is the espionage system and the ability to hire agents (read spies) to infiltrate the different factions and organizations. Each agent comes with their own special ability, which can help determine the best place for them. With infiltration, players gain intel which can be used to complete operations and gain other resources. Infiltrating an enemy faction will give you all the information you need to know about an opposing team. What are their combat capabilities? Are they around another faction? Are they running a surplus or deficit? The answers to these will help you decide the best course of action when it comes to planning out your best route to victory. Just like Northgard, there are multiple paths to victory. These add to the already established variety.

In this early build of the game, only single player campaigns are available, with plans to add a story campaign, multiplayer, and rebalance factions sometime in the future. Love or hate roadmaps, Shiro has proved their games have legs down the road, Northgard just received its latest update back in October, over five years after release.

Early access leaves a bad taste in some players’ mouths. There are plenty of horror stories to be had. In its current state, Dune: Spice Wars is not one of those stories. Players coming in looking for a combat heavy experience or wanting to play with friends may be disappointed. Those looking for something a little closer to a 4X experience will find much more to like here. It might be a while until Shiro reaches 1.0, but this early access feels just like the tip of the iceberg for what Spice Wars could offer.

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Lila’s Sky Ark Review – PC

A developer’s second game can land somewhere between sophomore slump and finding a rhythm. In the case of Lila’s Sky Ark, a pixelated action-adventure Metroidvania from Monolith of Minds, the developer has found the perfect blend of combat and puzzles and mixes them with an interesting world and an original game soundtrack that rivals some of the best music in the indie game scene.

Lila’s Sky Ark is a prequel to Monolith of Mind’s first game, Resolution, but fret not, the world and story stand on their own if you have no knowledge of the previous game. The titular Lila is tasked with saving her psychedelic world from a music-obsessed army. In the background, players collect letters written by Lila, to someone from her past. I won’t give anything away, but these letters offer a bridge to Lila’s life. They explore themes of depression and loss and actually feel like a letter someone would write and not just a random game pickup you find in the world.

Exploring four different biomes, players face off with enemies throwing different items and creatures they pick up throughout the environment. This “living ammo” is stored in your backpack and can be pulled out and used at any time. It’s a spin on combat that calls back to the live ammo of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. Each pickup is documented in your compendium, but each type of ammo’s usefulness becomes more apparent with a toss. I have a small gripe about inventory management. You can only carry so many things in your bag, which is fine, since the game has upgrades that up your inventory capacity. My gripe comes from story-based items being a part of your ammo inventory. Cycling through, looking for the right ammo, just to land on a Sad Peanut you can’t use, slows things down. You can open an inventory wheel and pause the gameplay to find the ammo you need, but it feels like there could have been a second menu for your story-based items.

Ammo types vary across the board, with your single use pots and crates that do low damage, to smiley faces that spread out and deal small amounts of damage across a bigger area, like a shotgun. Also available are recipes that can be used to purchase non-perishables. My personal favorite being Hatted Boot (yes, it is exactly that) which gives you a fast speed boost when equipped. These additional items aren’t necessary to complete the story, but they do add some variety in getting around and how you approach combat.

On the length side, you can run through Lila’s Sky Ark in about an afternoon. My playthrough in which I got stuck a few times and also did some side exploring, took me around seven hours to complete. It’s not bad for the asking price of $14.99. There is a moment in the game where you think it’s about to end but there’s actually another hour to go. It’s in this section where it is easy to get lost. The game has some small hints to try and help guide you, but if you’re not on the same page with the game in those moments, it can leave you banging your head. It’s nothing too drastic though, a few of those moments left me slapping my head when I realized what I was doing wrong.

The Metroidvania aspect of Lila is on the lighter side. There are only three items you gain throughout the story that push your progress forward. The Boneroot gives you the ability to pick up heavier objects blocking your path. The highlight of these items is the Banshee Streak, which not only grants progress but changes a core aspect of the gameplay. It’s a welcome change as you head into the last stretch of the game. On the other end, the Copper Feather, an item which lets you jump gaps, can be a bit touchy. In one area, I tried to mind a gap that required me to jump into a waterfall. It took me numerous attempts to get the jump to work properly. The annoyance is heightened when moving platforms are added to the equation. Thankfully the segments where the Copper Feather is a necessity are sparse.

Enemy variety in the game is a mix of wildlife and music-based enemies. The wildlife has taken a cue from Avatar: The Last Airbender and combined critters into even cuter versions, the best being the Slug Cats (Slats?) in the mountain region. Musical enemies bring an ensemble of instruments to the fight, my favorite being the brass goon that attacks you with notes from his trombone. But what really takes center stage are the boss fights, literally. They are all music based and all rock in their own way. One breaks out into bullet hell while your ammo is limited to whatever falls from the ceiling. Each brings a unique challenge but won’t wipe the floor with you. This is where learning the ins and outs of your ammo will come into play, with you cycling through to find the best ammo for each situation. My only complaint about the bosses is that there is no boss rush mode at the moment. These boss fights are built for replayability and I’d love to see this mode introduced down the line.

While exploring the world, you’ll be treated to what I believe is the best original game soundtrack of 2022, and one that will be held up years from now along with greats like Fez and Inscryption. Tracks like Spirit of the Mountain and Spirit of the Sky invoke a sense of adventure and wonder with their long, synth-heavy notes. While The Real Catslug God and The Drummer capture the feel of the boss fights with their hectic guitar riffs. There is not a wasted note in the whole album. When the inevitable Game of the Year discussions start up at the end of the year, Lila’s Sky Ark will be turning some heads in the music categories.

Lila’s Sky Ark was not on my radar heading into the year. I don’t think it’s on many radars. To think of all those people missing out on the colorful world and creatures, the challenging and rewarding boss fights, and the ear-catching original soundtrack, that’s a damn shame. To say the least, those lucky enough to find this gem are getting a game from a developer that has found its voice.

Drill Deal – Oil Tycoon Review – PC

Texas tea, black gold, bubblin’ crude, no matter what you call oil, there’s an allure to the lifestyle of blue-collar workers extracting Earth’s precious resource, highlighted by the likes of shows like Discovery’s Black Gold and License to Drill. With Drill Deal – Oil Tycoon, developer, A2 Softwork’s strikes out into the simulator genre, giving players full control of their own deep sea oil rig, through numerous situations. As far as management sims goes, Drill Deal offers layers of decision making along with some fun, challenging scenarios, as long as you can get past a rough UI and some questionable development decisions.

Just like other simulators, Drill Deal’s cycle is simple. Hire workers to work your deep-sea oil rig and keep them happy. You’ll do this by keeping them fed and entertained while also managing your resources properly, to guarantee things run smoothly. Your focus will be keeping income up so you can continue to update buildings and hire new workers. With the proper buildings and workers in place you can gather the resources you need to ship them out to your contractors and keep the money coming in, and so the circle of oil tycoonism goes.

The game looks fine, if you haven’t grown tired of the blocky Minecraft aesthetic that smaller indie devs have latched onto in the last few years. The blockhead characters aren’t going to turn any heads. When your rig is up and running at full capacity it can be a joy to look at, if just for a moment before your attention returns to some approaching catastrophe.     

Along the way you’ll come up against obstacles like bad weather, pirates, and ecoterrorists, all looking to derail your operations. The aforementioned scenarios help keep things interesting and add some variety to the challenges. In each scenario you work to earn stars, based on completed objectives (one objective=one star). For an early scenario, you earn stars for fighting off a pirate attack and selling a certain amount of a specific resource. Another scenario awarded a star for keeping a certain number of employees above a specific job satisfaction rate. These challenges stay the same with each replay of the scenario, so while there’s variety across the scenarios, there’s little to no variety in how you tackle each scenario. This is driven further in the fact that numerous upgrades are locked in certain scenarios, which gives you little reason to return to a scenario, once you’ve collected all your stars.

Once you’re through all the scenarios, players can start an open sandbox that puts their oil tycoon lifestyle to the test. This is the preferred game mode of Drill Deal. It’s the truest version of the game. With all upgrades available, you’ll build your empire, max out your reputation, keep workers satisfied, and ink the biggest shipping contracts. Anything that can go wrong will, with the aforementioned catastrophes now appearing randomly to try and end your capitalistic ways. This is the most fun you’ll have with Drill Deal but this is also where you’ll start to notice some of the gears not turning.

Drill Deal is not the best at communicating with you when it comes to status changes. I found myself running out of resources numerous times, with no indicators that I was running a deficit on a resource. The games UI does tell you if you’re building up resources or running a deficit, but these numbers change on the whim. Making things worse, there are so many resources, that they cannot all be displayed at the same time. I’d be running the business having a good time and then, wham, I’m all out of Heavy Oil. I physically would have to scroll down through my resources in the UI, to discover things weren’t going as good as I had previously thought.

There’s also an issue with how resources are labeled. A majority of the labels are oil drums with a letter on them. That’s fine, but some labels are also similarly colored, and it’s easy to mix them up when planning out contracts or using resources to make other resources. It’s just messy and can hinder your progress.  For example, I thought I was doing quite well with a surplus of crude oil, so I set up an ongoing contract to sell some of that surplus and bring in some extra money. It turns out, I was poor in crude oil and was actually running a surplus in fuel oil (both labels are a mix of red and yellow). In my haste, I had created a snag in the supply chain, that I would feel for a few days as some buildings were unable to produce other resources. 
Another annoyance is the inability to move pre existing buildings. Players who wish to move a building must destroy it, and only receive half of the original cost to produce the building. This makes a slip of the hand or ill conceived placement a costly prospect. In one scenario I placed my living quarters one block away from a generator. This resulted in the nerfing of the building’s benefits for my employees (not communicated to me prior). Not moving the quarters or the generator would come at a cost of losing employee happiness. Moving either would result in the lost cost of the building. It was a nasty rock meets hard place scenario that could have been avoided with proper communication from the game.

In most simulators like this, any battle-type situations would play out automatically, IE you would build the turret and it would fire on incoming enemies automatically. In Drill Deal, you are required to take control of a turret to fire upon incoming enemies or obstacles in the environment. This can feel jankie. In an early scenario players are required to clear out mines with the turret. I continuously missed the mines as they moved with the waves of the ocean. With the mix of blocky structures and weird movements hitting objects feels harder than it needs to be. Trading shots with invading pirates did feel cool as I frantically fired to try and avoid too much damage to my rig.

If you’re looking for something to scratch that oil rig simulator itch, Drill Deal is your best bet at the moment. There’s enough fun and challenge here to warrant the buy, if you’re willing to look the other way when it comes to some poor UI utilization and the lack of variety in choice in tackling the game’s scenarios.

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Aztech Forgotten Gods Review – PC

For the longest time the intersection of historical settings and futuristic backdrops in gaming has been dominated by Ubi Soft and their hit-or-miss (mostly miss) Assassin’s Creed series. Aztech Forgotten Gods, from Mexican developer Lienzo, enters that fray, asking what if the Aztec Empire never fell. The resulting game contains a self-coined, Cyber-Stone world that blends ancient Aztec Gods with cyberpunk tech. The setting is oozing with style and promise, and the characters are just interesting enough to carry the narrative, but the gameplay and the overworld map leave a lot to be desired in Aztech Forbidden Gods.

Aztech is a 3D platformer that sneaks in open-world adventure elements. Players explore the city of Tenochtitlán as Achtli, another recent protagonist with a giant robotic arm (the other being Rani in last year’s The Gunk). Achtli’s main mode of transportation is her arm, which doubles as a jetpack that rockets you across the city. There’s also an upgrade that lets you grind rails which I found reminiscent of Sunset Overdrive. There are some odds-and-ends around the open world such as battle challenges and races, but otherwise Tenochtitlán just feels empty. Hover Cars and pedestrians are present throughout the city, but they don’t help make the city feel like a living, breathing place. Instead, it just feels like an empty husk you fly through to go from mission to mission.

The most fun I had with Aztech was traversing the city and seeing just how high I could fly. I worried the presence of a stamina bar would ground exploration, but rings around the city kept me moving and kept stamina management from becoming annoying. Combat on the other hand feels like an afterthought. You are unable to lock onto enemies. The rules of attacking enemies are also not well defined. A circle pops up along with a button prompt, when you are in range for an attack, but there is no indication if the attack even landed. In most encounters I found myself just swinging my giant arm aimlessly until the statuesque enemy evaporated. There are other abilities you gain throughout the campaign, like a blade projectile and a ground stomp, but I rarely used most of those in comparison to the default haymakers.

My biggest gripe with Aztech is its lackluster camera. You have control of the camera, but it periodically goes rogue when enemies come into play. I’d fly toward an enemy, ready to throw a punch, just for the camera to move and completely throw off my attack. This happened repeatedly.  In wide open spaces, flying around, there aren’t many issues, but a majority of the game is about the combat, and the camera completely takes you out of the experience, especially when fighting one of the many bosses.

There is plenty to love about the bosses you’ll fight across the campaign. Their designs are beautiful and heavily lean on ancient art depictions of each deity. Each fight also feels unique, implementing the need to use new abilities as you progress further into the game. One such fight required the use of the newly acquired blade projectile to cut the vines a boss hung from, prior to launching the finishing blow. These fights ultimately are plagued by Aztech’s camera issues.

Losing sight of the boss, thanks to an uncooperative camera, can lead to untimely deaths and repeated sections of fights multiple times. Most of the bosses already pose a challenge, the added challenge of a bad camera does a disservice to one of the better aspects of the game. In one fight, you take on a double-headed god in a sports arena. Sounds cool, right? I thought so, until I flew around the arena, lost sight of the boss multiple times, and also latched onto the wall I couldn’t see (thanks to an upgrade), all thanks to the camera.

With your great arm, comes great responsibility. Achtli is entangled with an Aztec god, who tasks her with defeating other Aztec entities that have re-emerged to destroy the city. It’s your typical hero’s journey, which lasts a little too long (it took me about five hours to see credits).

I did find myself more interested in Achtli’s backstory concerning the loss of her father and her arm. She’s also afraid of tight spaces, which is a nice character moment every time she finds herself in a small room. The game also makes time to explore themes of loss, feeling like a complete person, and using technology to fill voids. As I said previously, these characters are interesting. Achtli’s relationship with her mom and her long-time friend Tepo are touching and dip into themes of being a single parent and the give-and-take of friendships. It’s just easy to miss a lot of this due to there being no voice acting in Aztech, aside from the occasional expressive grunt accompanying the lines of dialogue. Things are even worse when dialogue plays out while you traverse the city. It’s tough reading up on what’s going on with Tepo, while you’re flying to your next objective and dodging enemies.

I really want to recommend Aztech Forgotten Gods. Between its unique setting, fun open world traversal, awesome looking bosses, and great storytelling it has a lot to like, but with minimal optimization of the combat system and a camera that can’t keep its focus on your enemies, the only thing I can recommend is a few more months of polish.

Total War: Warhammer III Review – PC

With the release of Total War: Warhammer III, developer, Creative Assembly, has finished the fight in the Warhammer spinoff of their popular strategy series. As a newcomer to Total War, I was concerned I would be inundated with numerous systems, managing stats, and playing with unit variety and placement, all while trying to survive large battles. I wasn’t wrong, but instead of feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, Creative Assembly embraced me and other new players with open arms, giving us a place to experiment and learn the tricks of the trade. I came out of Warhammer III less intimidated with the series as a whole and with new ambition to get better.

New players will immediately feel at home in Warhammer III’s prologue. Where most developers either vaguely hint at what players should be doing or guide them through every single moment, Creative Assembly has found a middle ground, giving players just enough information to handle systems management and battles on their own. Don’t get me wrong, you learn a lot in the tutorial, like battle matchups, settlement management, overworld mechanics, Lord management, and research paths, just to name a few. Put simply, the prologue doesn’t even feel like a prologue. It feels like you’ve been dropped right in the middle of the story 

Being new to the series, I thought the story would swoop right over my head, but I immediately bought into the prologue and Yuri’s obsession with saving Ursun, the Bear-God. With no attachment to Warhammer previously, I was surprised how easily the prologue’s tale sucked me in. It’s a story of destiny and obsession, and it comes out the gate strong. Heading into the main game, players can choose from seven factions to play as. Each faction is out to find Ursun. While the campaign is the same across the factions, their reason for pursuing the Bear-God differs. 

Also differing is the playstyle between the factions. Ranging from aggressive to defensive, they bring enough diversity on the battlefield and in the overworld map, that players will return to the campaign to try out the other factions. In my time with the game, I grew fond of Nurgle and their slow-aggressor playstyle (they’re also just gross to look at). I dabbled here and there in the others, but Nurgle was my comfort zone after a few hours. I imagine similarly, most players will find that one faction they favor and stick with it, at least until the factions from Warhammer and Warhammer II are added to the game. Returning players may find the lack of those factions at release to be a disappointment, but I think there’s enough here to hold folks over until they eventually release. 

The overworld brought a challenge I did not expect to sink my teeth into. Coming in I knew the highlight was the sprawling battles with hundreds of units going at each other. The overworld brings a mix of settlement and unit management. At first glance this can be overwhelming, but the game is constantly reminding you to complete things before finishing your turn. There’s a wide variety of buildings available to build in your settlement, and I barely scratched the service of finding their optimal build orders. I also enjoyed the diplomacy options available. Forming an alliance gives you access to outposts and potentially your allies’ armies, adding even more layers to your strategy for the battlefield

I’m sure grizzled vets of the series will stomp their way through computer foes, but as a new player, even battles on normal proved to be a challenge. I found myself losing a ton early on in the campaign, but I never felt cheated. It made me want to improve my strategy and explore, with mixes of unit types and army placements. Turning the tide of war and winning later fights feels satisfying. Bigger battles can be daunting, but through careful planning and finding a mix of units that best suits a situation, I found myself winning more constantly the more I played.  Leaders and their abilities can also change the tide of a battle. 

When you’re not busy plotting out your war path, you’ll be sucked into the ground level as you watch spearmen take on mammoths or Ogres plow through smaller infantry. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the chaos. Slo-mo mode and the ability to pause are a blessing when it comes to taking in the moment. 

I’m still early in my time with Warhammer III. Struggling with the AI, I’ve yet to brave the rigors of online, which boasts multiple modes, including a multiplayer campaign that supports eight players, co-operative side campaigns, and multiplayer battles. 

As a new player, I was worried I would come to an unbreachable wall while trying Total War: Warhammer III. To my surprise, I was welcomed with open arms with a prologue that not only taught me the mechanics, but also made me want to get better. Warhammer III is challenging, but it can be learned. With numerous game modes and more factions on the way, Total War: Warhammer III is 2022’s first time sink.

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Session: Skate Sim Early Access Review – PC

This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.

I can’t skate. It was never for a lack of trying, but I always suspected that my boards throughout the years conspired with gravity to get me to quit. They were successful. Pushing into my thirties, I am officially retired from ever being “in the scene”, but now Session: Skate Sim, from Crea-ture Studios Inc, is looking to give everyone the full skating experience, minus the scraped elbows and broken bones. Currently in preview, Session has its issues, and learning its mechanics can be just as frustrating as learning to skate in real life. Those willing to stick it out though and dig a little deeper will find a rewarding experience that rivals a real skate session.

When Skate landed on consoles in 2007, players flocked to it, embracing the sim-like mechanics never before seen in the genre. Session takes things further with each foot being controlled by a separate thumbstick (sorry folks, no mouse and keyboard support). To pull off an Ollie, you’d hold down the right stick, and flick the left stick up. A kickflip – right stick back, left stick right. If you’re goofy-footed, take everything I just said and flip it. 

Kicking, stopping, and getting off the board are all tied to face buttons while turning is tied to the left and right triggers. This can all be a bit much just getting started. Thankfully Crea-ture has included an assist mode for new players to help get them acclimated to the mechanics. It still takes some time to learn, but assisted mode will keep you from spending a majority of the time on your ass. Players new to skating will still spend early hours fumbling tricks and missing rails, but the payoff eventually comes when you start landing tricks. Nothing is more satisfying then hitting that kickflip or landing a nosegrind on a long rail. 

Story missions have also been added with the latest patch. Light on an actual story, these missions introduce players to the different tricks in their tool belt and how to pull them off. It’s a bit irritating that learning certain tricks and completing its accompanying mission are tied to certain locations. One mission had me landing manuals on a small platform. This was fine at first, until the manuals eventually got more complicated (I, for the life of me, could still not tell you what defines a switch manual). My time was better spent skating around, ignoring missions, and just discovering things for myself. 

Therein lies one of the highlights of Session. Just skating around looking for spots to pull of tricks. At the time of this review there are nine maps spread across New York and Philadelphia. Players can easily access each map in the menu or travel there via a bus stop menu or your board. Maps vary from parking garages to parks and bridges. Crea-ture highlights some maps as legendary skate spots (such as Black Hubbas and FDR park), but to the untrained skater eye, these can come off as just another set of stairs to ollie and rails to grind. Don’t get me wrong, the maps are great and offer enough variety across them, but at the end of the day I just wanted a set of stairs I could pull off flip tricks on for my camera. 

Session fully embraces the clip aspect of skating. If you’ve ever wanted to create a skate clip, but can’t skate to save your life, Session is your best bet at skateboard clip fame. Players can open film mode from anywhere in the game instantly. The level of customization here will leave you feeling like you a real film crew. One standout is the fisheye lens that gives you an instant nostalgia kick if you’ve ever watched old skater videos. 

On the skater side, there is some customization to be had. Players can change their apparel and customize their board with different decks, trucks and wheels. Some familiar brands are present like Fallen and Grind King (among others), but you can definitely tell there’s room to grow here as the game barrels toward 1.0. 

Players looking for more of a challenge also won’t be disappointed. The game comes with 4 difficulty settings and mechanics can be tweaked as players see fit, with some settings including wheel grip, truck tightness, and even adding pedestrians to get in the way of landing tricks. I was still fairly new to the mechanics when switching into the harder difficulties, but I could instantly tell there was a difference in my skating. I wasn’t landing every flip trick, and actively needed to push down on both thumbsticks to make sure my skater was landing his tricks. 

Session: Skate Sim is a great option for anyone tired of the long wait for the mythical Skate 4. With a focus on realism and a detachment for scoring systems, Session feels like a love letter to skate culture and everything skating. With more time to cook before its 1.0 release this fall, Session is looking like it could set the standard for skate sims to come.

KINGDOM of the DEAD Review – PC

KINGDOM of the DEAD spits in the face of modern shooters, turning away from design norms like regenerating health and legendary weapon pickups. Developer, Dirigo Games instead, makes their full length debut a love letter to the DOOMs, Wolfensteins, and Quakes of the 90s, blending fast-paced carnage and increased difficulty with an art style that sucked me in. The result is a throwback shooter that despite its flaws, continuously surprised me the further I got into it. 

Unlike its 90s influencers, KINGDOM of the DEAD looks amazing, thanks to its hand drawn art style. The pen and ink drawn environments are the star of the show.  Pitched as “Hand Drawn Horror” by the developer, it’s a label the game comes by honestly. The ink black skies of outdoor areas create a Lovecraftian vibe, as you wonder what goes bump in the night around you. Interior area’s pitch-black corridors give a sense of claustrophobia and really sell the turn-of-the-century, 1900s vibe the game is going for. One standout level is the tanker ship where things go from a wide-open deck to the dark cramped crew quarters in a matter of minutes. The level is escalated into greatness the deeper into the ship you go (no spoilers here). 

The black and white environments are occasionally broken up with some splashes of color. These come in the form of ammo boxes, the objective gates, and parts of the enemy (including their blood). These are all welcome additions and don’t detract from the art style. The eeriness of each level goes into overdrive when the blue and yellow eyes of enemies stare at you from across the map. There were moments where an enemy’s blood tracked along with me through some areas, but I was so busy with undead onslaughts, the issue didn’t stand out too much.

The dead have returned to roam the Earth and they need to be put back in their final ‘final’ resting place. Tasked with this is the player character, college professor turned GATEKEEPER sleeper agent, Agent Chamberlain. Just like DOOM Guy and BJ Blazkowicz before him, Chamberlain mows down endless hordes of enemies single handedly. Filled with 22 different types of enemies, the game keeps things fresh with a mix of enemy combos as you run through each level. The enemies really do complement each other as they try to take out your one-man army. In one fight, I found myself bouncing between church pews as dog-like enemies gave chase and blue-eyed warlocks shot projectiles from all around the room. In another fight, a giant eyeball shot projectiles from a nearby rooftop as multiple birds swooped at me from every direction. The game isn’t shy about throwing bigger hordes at you in its higher difficulties either.

The story here is basic. What you’re really here for is the run’n’gun gameplay that created a whole genre. All the arsenal mainstays from FPS’ past like the shotgun, rifle, and gatling gun are accounted for. There’s also a talking sword if you have an itch for a melee playthrough, but even with a special ability that sets enemy groups on fire, it pales in comparison to its bullet spitting brethren. The variety of weapons is fine, but I was left desiring an “it” weapon. The one that stands out above the others; the equivalent to DOOM’s BFG or Quake’s Rocket Launcher. Also, there were some instances where I felt my perfectly placed shots weren’t hitting. This stands out especially when fighting the aforementioned giant eyeball. It takes a few shots to bring it down, but there were plenty of times where I struggled to see if I was actually doing any damage in the gunfight. 

Chamberlain’s university office serves as a central hub in the game, where players can choose their next level and track completion stats across the game. All stats are tracked by the difficulty each level is completed on, adding replayability, as you try to complete levels faster and faster. Saves in the game are a touchy subject. If you start a level, you need to complete it prior to closing the game, or else you’ll lose all progress in that level. This isn’t a deal breaker since levels aren’t crazy long. It stings a little more when you realize all the extra health you gained has been lost upon booting the game back up again, an inconvenience when it comes to fighting the game’s bosses.

After fighting the same boss across the first two levels, I was certain the dev team phoned-in the remaining bosses to focus on the art style. I could not have been more wrong. The early gaffes were immediately rectified with some challenging fights and some pleasant surprises when it came to the structure of the boss and how they played into the level. They’re not all bangers, but when Dirigio gets it right, they hit the perfect blend of fun and challenge. 

Hats off to Philip Willey for the amazing music. From the chaotic opening theme to the broody dungeon crawling tracks, there is not a wasted song on this soundtrack. I found myself digging through them in Chamberlain’s office struggling to find a favorite. 

Is KINGDOM of the DEAD perfect? Not by a longshot, but it’s a welcome entry into a genre overpopulated by looter shooters and shooters-as-a-service, with its challenging gameplay and beautiful hand drawn levels. If you’ve been itching for a DOOM-like title to fill you run’n’gun needs, you’d be perplexed to miss this little gem.

The Gunk Review – PC

Any time a developer ventures into a new genre there is some optimism mixed with a collective holding of breath. Breaking away from their 2D platforming roots, developer Image & Form has set out to make their mark in 3D platforming. The Gunk is a fun action-adventure platformer with some interesting story beats and characters, but overall it feels more like a proof of concept and less like a full game.

The Gunk follows the space-junking couple, Rani and Becks, as they descend upon an untouched planet in search of resources. They discover the world is overrun with a sludge-like substance called gunk and set out to discover the source of the pollution. Rani explores the planet solo, but Becks is always in her ear, chiming in about whatever is going on. The couple really is the heart of the story. Rani and Becks feel like a real couple, talking about real things, like the stress of working with a loved one, the pressures of sharing debt in a relationship, or how one partner’s defining trait could be the other partner’s burden. As I explored the planet, I found myself more drawn to the relationship than anything else going on.

Rani is equipped with a Power Glove that she uses to suck up the gunk, fight enemies, and collect resources. With an area clear of gunk and enemies, plant life returns to normal and opens a new path for you to explore. Toss in a few environmental puzzles and you have the basic gameplay loop of The Gunk. It’s fun sucking up the gunk and looking for ways to deal with enemies, but I found myself hoping for new challenges that never came as I got into the later parts of the game. Accessing some areas would require an upgrade to your Power Glove, but between an easy to use fast travel system and a large abundance of resources, you’ll never be wandering around wondering what you need to do next.

There are ten total Power Glove upgrades across the game. They unlock as you progress through the story, but beside a gadget that lures enemies to it, and a pulse beam that opens doors and stuns enemies, there didn’t seem to be much difference to the gameplay after most upgrades. One upgrade increases the field of your glove’s vacuum, another gives you a boost of speed after sucking up gunk, but I honestly could not tell if there were any tangible benefits in the case of either upgrade. I was hoping for a few more new gadgets as the game started to throw new blends of enemies at me later in the campaign but was left wanting more.

Another place lacking in variety are the enemies, of which there are only three. Things ramp up in later encounters with blends of enemies, but with so few to choose from there are only so many ways the game can throw them at you. Early chapters introduce some native wildlife and drones, which I thought would be corrupted by the gunk at some point, but nothing of the like ever unfolds.

That is the biggest issue with The Gunk, this world doesn’t feel alive. The few encounters with inhabitants are used to drive the plot forward and nothing more. You stumble upon ruins and cities, but they don’t really feel lived in. This is most apparent when compared to the dialogue exchanges between Rani and Becks. Each word has weight, and you feel like you’ve just stumbled upon a couple in the middle of an argument. The issues Becks brings up aren’t the first time these two are discussing these issues. The world offers nothing in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong, the world is beautiful and the mix of wilderness and ancient ruins will have you stopping to take in the view from time to time. There’s enough variety to keep your interest between the biomes with the mix of forests, caves, deserts, and industrial areas that we’ve come to expect in games like this. But all of that is surface level. Aside from monuments of worship, I never got a feel for the world or the individuals who call it home.

While it’s not readily available online at the moment, I want to shine a light on the amazing soundtrack. Numerous tracks give players a sense of wonder and exploration. A standout out from the OST lays out some smooth saxophone notes (eliciting the Halo 3: ODST hub music) as you search for a way through the gunk and across a river.

The big bad of the story is a visionary that the world’s population worships. Think like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. It’s a cautionary tale about hero worship and the chaos that follows after handing the keys of the world to the rich. As you’ve probably already guessed, The Gunk comments on a population’s strain on resources and the global effects of pollution. The issue with this is that the core gameplay undermines those story beats, with players sucking up every resource they come across to upgrade their Power Glove. Rani and Becks are there to mine the planet for resources, but even after they discover the source of the gunk and vow to stop it, the player can still collect resources.

At $25 I would recommend those with Game Pass check it out there. I was able to beat the campaign in less than four hours, all while exploring alternate routes and looking for collectibles. In replayability there isn’t much new to see for a second go around.

The Gunk is the start of Image & Form diversifying and getting their feet wet in a new genre, but the lack of variety across the board and the short completion time make it the truest definition of a “Game Pass game”. With its completion I am excited to see where the dev team goes next. I just hope they dive in head first, instead of just dipping a toe.

The Pathless Review – PC

The Pathless knows that you’ve played Breath of the Wild. Its stunning visuals and fully orchestrated soundtrack scream the influence of Nintendo’s beloved series, so much so, that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda. The looks and sounds may drag you in, but the feel, specifically the fluid motion of the protagonist, will drive an arrow through your heart and drive you to explore every nook and cranny of its vast forest map.

As a master archer, you are tasked with saving an island from a dark curse that has corrupted its inhabitants. It’s nothing new to adventure games, but that doesn’t cheapen the overall experience. The story is minimalistic with an occasional cutscene and exchanges of dialogue. Developer, Giant Squid, decided to let the world tell its own story. Bodies around the world provide a small glimpse into the island before your arrival. On one occasion, I read about the slaughter of a whole monastery. To my surprise, I happened upon that monastery and those who would call it their final resting place. Later on, I would find myself in the skeleton of a giant lizard, who just so happened to swallow a temple. It’s small moments like these and the fact that you can miss them that make the island feel alive.

This island is huge, spread across four biomes that include a thick jungle, vast plains, and the deepest snow valley I’ve seen in a game. As you traverse villages, ruins, and other structures, you’ll work to avoid the area’s boss, as they hunt you in the shape of a giant red orb. These moments are scary. While I never had one interrupt a puzzle, there would be a few times where I would be caught off guard while admiring something in the distance. Getting caught starts a difficult-to-win stealth section. There isn’t much lost if you fail these sections, so they’re only mildly annoying.

I originally was worried that traversing each area would be tedious, as the archer is only equipped with a bow and her eagle companion. I could not have been more wrong. Your character is given boosts that can be filled by shooting talismans spread around the island. The inclusion of auto-aim makes moving around the island fluid and easily the most fun to be had in the game. Your eagle adds depth to the movement, giving you boosts into the air to help gain access to new areas. There’s also the pet button. Time and time again your eagle will be corrupted by the darkness of the world. The only way to heal her is with pets. While it is a small addition, it gives you the opportunity to slow down and take in the environment around you.

You have one objective with each area, beat the boss. To do so you’ll have to find numerous lightstones around the island. With no world map or markers present, you will rely on spirit vision to help you find your way. Spirit vision (think detective view from Arkham Asylum) gives you hints on where to find stones. With the lightstones in hand, you’ll liberate the three towers in each area and then will face the area’s boss. This loop in each area can get repetitive. The discoverability can help break this up a bit, but if you’re streamlining to get through to each boss, you’ll likely feel some fatigue. This ultimately doesn’t take away from the awesomeness that is the boss sections.

Each boss fight is broken down into three sections. The chase, the fight, and the finishing blow. If you can only experience one moment in The Pathless, please let it be the chase. As you enter the final lair of an area, the boss takes off and you are forced to give chase, using everything you’ve learned and the talisman around you to stop and corner the big chicken. With the chase, I don’t hesitate to draw comparisons to Wander climbing giants in Shadow of the Colossus in reference to the scope and the awe you feel in the moment. Each fight also evokes more Zelda comparisons, especially from Majora’s Mask in reference to the darkness and the warped state of each boss. The fight and the finishing blow for each boss bring something interesting to the table, but they fail to live up to the excitement brought on by the chase.

The Pathless makes you want to run through its world as fast as you can. It also makes you want to stop and take in as many moments as you can. I say do both. And dang it, pet the bird!