Category Archives: Game Reviews

Twelve Minutes Review – PC

I love a good “time loop” story.  It’s a clever plot contrivance that has been the basis of countless movies and episodes of TV with Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day being the quintessential example of how to do it well; although I am still a fan of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Cause and Effect where the Enterprise was caught in a time loop that reset after each commercial break.  Interestingly enough, each of those Trek loops were about 10-12 minutes long; the same amount of time you’ll get in Luis Antonio’s latest adventure-suspense-thriller, Twelve Minutes.

I was immediately intrigued with this game when it was first announced at E3 back in 2019, not only because of the time loop storytelling device but also the unique prospect of playing a game with only three characters in a three-room studio apartment.  Just how much gameplay can you milk from such limited resources?  Roughly 8-12 hours based on my personal game time and research of others’ experiences, and that is likely to get you only one or two of the multiple endings, which may not be the “true” ending, but by then your brain is mush and “truth” is merely a concept.

Without giving away any spoilers you play as the husband (James McAvoy) who comes home to his sparsely furnished studio apartment where his wife (Daisy Ridley) has big news and a tasty desert waiting for him.  Only a few minutes into their celebration a police officer (Willem Dafoe) starts banging on the door saying he has a warrant for your wife for murder.  Of course things aren’t as they seem (the understatement of the century) and your life keeps resetting after twelve minutes (or sooner if you die, get knocked out, go to sleep, or leave the apartment).  It’s up to you to solve the mystery of the pocket watch, a dead father, and a diabolical family legacy that will have you on the edge of your seat until the jaw dropping twist.  Can you repair time and escape the loop?

Personally, I hate to do the same thing more than once so the very notion of this game should have sounded all sorts of alarms yet I was intrigued for several hours of play until I just got burned out with the repetition.  With such limited characters, locations, and inventory items Twelve Minutes manufactures content by spoon-feeding you morsels of the story then resetting the loop so you can use that new nugget of knowledge to hopefully trigger the next…and so on and so on.  There are virtually no clues or hints, leaving you to stumble onto every realization through trial and error.  Actions that are wildly inappropriate (like drugging your wife) are required for one loop while unnecessary in future loops.  With each new loop your knowledge from past loops can be used with new shortcut responses in the game’s limited conversation trees, greatly speeding up the time required to get your wife onboard with the current situation, although by the end it’s almost comical the way you info-dump on your wife and she just collapses on the sofa; her mind obviously blown.

One interesting aspect of the game is the way you manage time.  Early on you only have a few minutes before the cop arrives, so you have to plan and execute these lengthy series of events and actions before he starts knocking just so you can get enough new knowledge to take into the next loop.  As mentioned, this requires tremendous amounts of trial and error…so much error.  And it can take numerous loops before you stumble on that one nugget of knowledge that opens the floodgates of storytelling in the next loop, especially near the end.

The look and presentation of the game is definitely unique with a top-down view of the action and interaction of characters and objects.  There are a few cool camera changes like hiding in a closet and peeking through the slats or kneeling down to search air vents or rummage through a dresser drawer.  There is some great texture work and realistic lighting and shadows with lights that can be switched off and on and flashes of lightning to add to the ambience.  The audio presentation is also well done with expert voice acting from all the big-name talent they hired for this project.  The script is surprisingly well done considering how much it had to be broken up and delivered one reveal at a time yet still remain compelling.  The sound effects are minimal but effective like the ding of the elevator that signals the arrival of the cop, and the soundtrack sets the perfect mood when needed then fades to silence for the more dramatic conversations.

Now comes the question of should you play Twelve Minutes, and services like Game Pass make this a particularly interesting dilemma.  If you subscribe to Game Pass you can play this game on Xbox or PC for “free”.  If not you have the unsavory option of paying $25 for a game that can take you anywhere from 4-10 hours to beat based on your powers of deduction and quite frankly, LUCK.  If Steam is your only option I might recommend waiting for a sale or perhaps doing a free Game Pass trial and playing that version.  As much as I love what Luis Antonio was trying to do here, Twelve Minutes is not a $25 experience…in my opinion; especially when the game will most likely leave you feeling icky and unsatisfied with the intended ending.

The Artful Escape Review – PC

I’m not sure what I expected when I started playing The Artful Escape; I mean I had read the promo material and seen the wacky trailer that looked like a Bill & Ted sequel set in the world of Heavy Metal, but nothing could really prepare me for the blissful reality of it all.  The game is first and foremost a music game, or rather a musical experience, as noted by the preponderance of mixer gain in favor of the music track that sent me scrambling for the sound options to lower that level in half.  The opening splash screen is simple enough; a tree with a poster for an upcoming music festival, and once you start the game we slowly move past the tree to a park bench perched on a cliff overlooking a majestic castle-like city.

Here we meet Francis Vendetti, a young teen with Harry Potter glasses and a funky acoustical guitar decked out with all sorts of electronic components.  Francis is about to be the opening act for the upcoming music festival, and he’s trying to find the perfect “sound”, which is where you come in as you hold the X button and strum some chords from a few folksy tunes before letting loose with an epic sci-fi guitar solo, so epic in fact that it catches the attention of an intergalactic talent recruiter who takes you on a magical journey through space and time.

The Artful Escape is nearly impossible to explain; almost like reviewing a music video or a live concert.  The game starts off a bit slow; at least compared to what’s coming, as you explore your home town and talk to anyone who will talk back.  Things really start to shred once you step through Lightman’s doorway and enter the Cosmic Extraordinary.  Here you find yourself on a massive spaceship with a live theater, disco, nightclub, and other areas to explore.  From this hub you will branch off into otherworldly adventures on strange planets and landscapes ripped straight from album cover art inspired by Boston, ELO, and Asia.  You will gradually learn the history of the cosmos while interacting with indigenous life, always trying to get back to your ship so you can do it all again.

Gameplay isn’t terribly difficult or even that challenging.  You explore these scrolling worlds much like any other platformer by running and jumping.  You can use your guitar to extend jumps by shredding a quick solo or just hold down the X button for a continuous jam that blends seamlessly into the main soundtrack while often lighting up various parts of the level as you pass through.  There are numerous moments, both in level traversal as well as significant encounters and even boss fights where you will get to play a classic game of Simon using a few buttons on the controller to mimic the sounds and colors presented to you.  These moments are made even more interesting by the way the game integrates the button layout into actual creature designs; eyes and other orifices.

The game does slow down at times allowing you to engage in standard adventure game dialogue trees, but there are no consequences to these interactions.  Midway through the game you are allowed to do some character building, choosing elements to form your rock and roll backstory.  You even get to visit a shopping mall to perfect your image/look and take your spot as a guest on a popular late night alien talk show.

The Artful Escape is stunning in design and beauty, both from an imaginative and artistic standpoint as well as pure technical prowess with so much shiny surfaces and reflections I had trouble believing the game wasn’t using ray-tracing.  Every single frame of animation, every alien landscape, every original creature design is fresh and breathtakingly beautiful; truly a work of art.  And the way the levels animate and light up when you start to play must be experienced; it’s beyond words.

Complementing the visual design is an audio package that you’d expect from a AAA studio title, and one does have to wonder what the budget was for this game or what kind of talent agency contacts these developers had when they signed on names like; Michael Johnston, Caroline Kinley, Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Carl Weathers.  All of the voice actors turn in excellent performances and the script is witty, provocative, and thoughtful at times, as Francis struggles with his own identity and self-image, especially his musical abilities.  As mentioned, the game is heavily driven by its soundtrack and what a soundtrack it is!  Whether you are jamming out to platforming background music or shredding a guitar solo at your own one-man concert, every note of this soundtrack is magic (and also sold separately on the Steam store).

The Artful Escape really took me by surprise, and I ended up loving this game much more than I thought possible.  It might even be in my top ten of 2021 so far.  There is nothing complicated or even that much that resembles actual gameplay.  The platforming is super-easy, as you run, jump, and slide down slopes and leap across gaps; merely a reason for the music to play until you reach that next Simon musical match game.  If you die you spawn at a checkpoint seconds away, and you are allowed to fail the musical matches numerous times with no penalty.  The Artful Escape is here to celebrate some fantastic music and visuals while creating a relaxing journey that flows with the music and tells a fun quirky story about a boy who is trying to find his spot in the Cosmic Extraordinary.

If you want to see The Artful Escape in action check out our gameplay series with commentary on our YouTube channel.

The Medium Review – PlayStation 5

I had the spine-tingling pleasure of reviewing Bloober Team’s magnificent supernatural thriller, The Medium when it released earlier this year on Xbox and PC.  Now, after a short period of exclusivity, the game has made its way to the PS5 with noticeable enhancements that make the most of Sony’s next-gen system.  Interestingly enough, the improvements were all added five days after launch via an update patch, so those who played and possibly finished the game during that time didn’t get to enjoy those PS5 perks.  The Sept. 8, 2021 update added stunning new ray-tracing features to the already-amazing visuals as well as immersive haptic feedback for the DualSense controller as well as improved performance that greatly reduce loading times.  Thankfully the patch arrived while I was still writing this review and streaming the game so you can see actual gameplay of before the patch and after the patch.

So what is The Medium all about?   When first announced, this high-concept visual thriller promised to make the most of next-gen PC and console tech with its unique split-screen presentation that totally changes the way we see and play traditional adventure games.  This latest PS5 version certainly delivers on that promise.  The opening prologue sets up the narrative nicely, introducing us to Marianne, a young woman with the supernatural ability to see “the other side”; thus the split screen effect, but more on that in a bit.  We quickly learn that her adoptive father, Jack has just passed.  Jack owned and operated a funeral home, the perfect place for Marianne to discover and learn to use her ability to speak with the dead; something you’ll experience shortly as you prepare Jack for his final rest.

The Medium uses a clever split-screen device to show the same motion capture performance in two very different settings.  You’ll see what Marianne is doing in the real world as well as the underworld, often with shocking and disturbing variations.  Many of these interactions involve a young dead girl named Sadness, seemingly innocent while missing an arm and wearing a porcelain mask.  The game determines when the screen will split, making this more of a presentation plot device rather than an actual game mechanic, although you do have the option to focus on either side when making some choices.  An easy example are the Spirit Wells that Marianne can absorb energy from in the spirit world then dispense into fuse boxes that will activate items in the real world.

A large part of the game takes place at the Niwa resort; the location of a horrifying massacre.  The resort is now abandoned and fallen into disrepair, which adds plenty of clever exploration options to the game.  Crumbled walls, broken floors, and missing staircases might keep Marianne from moving forward in her world, but those same locations can often be navigated within the spirit world.  Marianne can also invoke an out of body experience that allows her to explore even more inaccessible areas within the spirit world, although there is a time limit to her spirit walks as well as at least one cool puzzle that requires this ability.

While the player has no control over when the screen will split they do have the ability to fully enter the underworld by touching and passing through various mirrors found throughout the game.  The visual effect looks just like the sepia tone split-screen, but these moments are played out in full-screen with no visual reference to reality.  This creates an almost portal-like system that helps Marianne navigate the broken architecture of the underworld as well as explore a crazy dollhouse later in the game.

Most of the game is pretty standard adventure genre material with you controlling Marianne as she explores her detailed surroundings looking for anything that can be viewed or interacted with; sometimes examining 3D objects, spinning them around, etc.  Most of the collectibles are pure info dumps, expanding upon the confusing narrative or simply adding flavor to the game, but there are numerous inventory items, most of which are used almost immediately after finding while others, like the bolt cutters, will serve you until the end of the game.

Puzzles are relatively straightforward, but I did enjoy the one that required finding masks and learning the names of the deceased to set their spirits free.  There was also a very cool puzzle where you moved the hands of a clock in the real world to manipulate time in the spirit world.  Near the end of the game there is an annoying water pump puzzle that seemed totally out of place with everything else up to that point.  It was fun to figure out, and all the necessary clues were right there in the room, but the overly complex solution just seemed to stall the momentum the game had been building up to that point.

You have a sensory ability that will light up the area around you, revealing key items and even highlight things from the spirit world in the real world; a useful ability during the game’s many stealth sequences.  There are situations where you will either be chased or forced to hide and sneak past a particularly nasty demon-like creature who wants to wear your skin.  Chase sequences merely require you to run along a linear path until you reach a safe zone, but the stealth sections have you crouching and even holding your breath to avoid detection.  There are only a few of these chase/stealth bits and they helped add some intensity and suspense to the overall game.

The Medium promises a next-gen presentation, not only with its split-screen design but by making the most of ray-tracing and HDR tech and the PS5 delivers an experience nearly on par with a high-end PC.  I initially started my review prior to the patch and the game still looked fantastic, but after the patch the visual experience was downright stunning.  All of the visual oddities and glitches I experienced on the PC and Xbox back in May were no longer an issue.  The PS5 delivers a pristine 4K image with excellent HDR that helps enhance the lighting and shadows of this sinister game world.

I had a great time with The Medium.  Even though it often felt like I was playing a Resident Evil game with the fixed camera angles and tank-like controls, there were some really great concepts in both presentation and gameplay.  There is some really great DualSense support that allows you to look around using the gyroscopic function of the controller, as well as pressure sensitive feedback on the triggers when using the bolt cutters, and plenty of immersive heartbeat thumping in the controller when sneaking around a certain demon.

The plot did meander in the middle with these odd excursions as a secondary character, Thomas, but even these became relevant as the story wrapped up near the end.  Speaking of the end, expect a twist and lots of speculation on what the hell just happened when the credits start to roll; even the post-credit stinger won’t help.  Having played all three versions of The Medium now, I can easily say the PS5 version is clearly the best and most polished of them all with ray-traced enhanced graphics, immersive controls, and much faster load screens.  If you haven’t experienced the thrills and chills of The Medium then now is the time and the PS5 is the best way to play.

Super Animal Royale Super Edition Review – PC

Super Animal Royal wants to fill that violent stuffed animal-shaped hole in your heart. Maybe you didn’t know you had it in you, but in this 2D Battle Royale, you and 63 other fuzzy killers will drop onto an island where it’s every-animal-for-themselves. Whether you emerge victorious in this fight-to-the-death or fall prey to an opponent, this charming shooter is promising fun for all in this unique presentation of a Battle Royale. So hang up that combat helmet, take a break from jumping out of the Battle Bus, and maybe let someone else be the Jumpmaster for a while. While this small but mighty game doesn’t get everything right, it succeeds in providing a welcome change of pace in a genre that’s growing too crowded and stale.

Published by Modus Games and developed by Pixile Studios, Super Animal Royale is the studio’s first foray onto consoles. Their only previous entry is a tower defense iPad game. This new entry is launching on all major consoles as well as Mac, PC, and Stadia. The cute and fuzzy free-to-play game want’s to be as approachable as possible. The game presents as a top-down, 2D shooter that anyone could take aim in. 64 players parachute down onto a large map and attempt to be the last anthropomorphic animal standing. The game has all the playlists you’d expect with solos, duos, and squads. Matchmaking time is fast although judging by some of the player’s names I suspect they may be filling servers with some bots. I particularly liked their Mystery Playlist that featured a unique wrinkle each match like one-shot-kills or faster bullet velocity.

From the second you parachute down you’ll soon find that only opponents that would be visible by your avatar show up on the screen. This is a clever way to solve the issue of being too omnipotent as you’re an eye-in-the-sky camera perspective. The system works well as I was able to ambush several opponents by hiding in what they perceived to be an empty room. Sadly, this is about where tactics end, and skirmish variety begins to get repetitive.

Battle Royale’s thrive on two things: balanced weapon diversity and spontaneous skirmishes. The former gives way to generating the latter. The fun in playing a Battle Royale game is having diverse tools to then attack and defend through unscripted encounters to hopefully emerge victorious. However, from a pistol to a sniper rifle, I found that the time to kill, range, and tactics I used were about the same no matter which equipment I held. I understand they are given different damage points and accuracy, but I didn’t feel they were unique enough to motivate me to pick up a different gun or to master using one over the other. To its credit, vehicles like gerbil balls and tools like a gas filtering-snorkel help shake up the formula, but not enough to make me approach an enemy encounter differently.

This deficiency is harder to put your finger on than you might think because the game is just so freaking charming! This game is hilarious and absurd in the best way. I genuinely was chuckling at all the animal puns and dressing up my bear in hats and glasses before our next killing session. Furthermore, it’s rare to find so much lore in a purely multiplayer game. Most franchises don’t tell you why you want to kill everyone else, but Super Animal Royale does a great job of building a fun and interesting world to explore. One aspect of their community building that I thought was particularly brilliant was putting fan art into an in-game museum. I loved going through and seeing what their community came up with. It made me feel like I was joining a new inside joke and a part of something bigger.

I have to note that I did run into some technical issues on console. Though I spent most of my time on PC, when testing their squad system on Xbox I was unable to invite my friends through the application itself. Instead, we had to go through Xbox’s party and game invitations from a systems-level and that was a pain. It was hit or miss if our joining one another was be successful. Eventually, we were able to get into each other’s game parties and into shared matches. The in-game voice chat works as you’d expect and we had a good time running around and trying to outwit other teams. Everyone was able to learn the game within a matter of minutes and this is a credit to the simple and approachable design. I can’t say we’ll be going back to Super Animal Royale until they have new content, but it was a fun way to spend an afternoon.

If you’re looking for a nice pallet cleanser from Warzone, Apex Legends, or Fortnight this is an enjoyable way to liven things up for your group of friends. I think you’ll see everything it has to offer after a few hours though. I didn’t feel the combat was so deep that I wanted to keep mastering the systems to get better. Instead, I gravitated towards Mystery Mode to change up the skirmish tactics. Super Animal Royale does a commendable job of fitting the Battle Royale formula into a smaller and more approachable package, but I’m not going to sink the same number of hours into it that I have with other tactical shooters. It has similar systems and features as other larger games in the genre like armor plating, different types of grenades, and a very clever visibility mechanic, but it’s not enough to really hold my attention. Caveats aside, if you’re a fan of Battle Royale games, you should at least give Super Animal Royale a go and see if it clicks for you.

Little Nightmares II Enhanced Edition Review – PlayStation 5

Earlier this year I reviewed the PC version of Little Nightmares II, the sequel to the critically acclaimed original Little Nightmares released back in 2017.  Both games quickly became two of my favorites in what was becoming an increasingly robust library of side-scrolling adventures inspired by classics such as Limbo and Inside.  Now, several months later, those with next-gen consoles as well as PC gamers who may have missed out on the original or simply want to experience it all over again can do so with the Enhanced Edition.  If you already own the original game on PC, Xbox One or PS4 then you’ll get this upgrade for free.

So what exactly does Little Nightmares II Enhanced Edition bring to the table?  If you are playing on a PS5 or Xbox Series X|S you get a choice of two modes; a Beauty mode that runs at 30fps at 4K with optimized ray-tracing, and a Performance mode that locks the game at 60fps with a dynamic 4K resolution and ray-tracing.  Ray-tracing delivers incredibly realistic reflections to shiny surfaces in the game while improved lighting and shadow effects add even more immersion to the already-sinister worlds that Six and Mono must explore.  Even the particle effects have been enhanced, offering more detail in the shape and size of dust motes as well as realistic interactive responses when characters pass through them.  And finally, all of the audio has been expertly remixed for immersive 5.1 and 7.1 surround environments.  The PC version, which was already superior to last-gen consoles, also gets these improvements which are fully scalable in the options menu.

For this review I am focusing on the PS5 version, which I am playing for the first time, although I did play the Enhanced Edition on the PC as well – it was a free upgrade so why not – and I can say that the game looks and performs flawlessly on my RTX3080-equipped PC with everything set to Ultra settings.  I did have a few stutters during scene loading, but this was remedied by moving the game from a mechanical drive to my SSD.  It’s also worth noting that the Xbox Series X|S is not properly implementing ray-traced reflections at this time, and is instead using screen-space reflections (SSR), which still look good but are not as realistic as the ray-tracing featured on PC and PS5.

So for those who haven’t read the original review for Little Nightmares II what follows is that article with a few minor updates for features specific to the Enhanced Edition on the PS5.

Unlike the first adventure many things have changed in Little Nightmares II including; how you play, where you play, and even who you play.  No longer set onboard a cannibal cruise ship, we begin our story like so many other games of this genre, alone in the creepy woods.  Meet Mono, a frightened little boy with a sack on his head, alone in the woods.  Like the first game you are simply inserted into this world with no idea of what to do, where to go, and why you are doing any of this.  Oddly enough, you’ll still have most of these feelings and even more questions when the credits start to roll 6-8 hours later.  For now, it’s time to explore this wonderfully mysterious and terribly creepy new world.

If you played the first game then you will know exactly what to expect from Little Nightmares II, but there are also a few surprises tossed into the mix.  First, Six will quickly team up with Mono introducing a new AI co-op element to some of the puzzles and level traversal.  While not exactly a fresh idea it still adds something new to the design, plus having a companion along for the adventure will help ease that sense of loneliness, but it also enhances the tension of solitude when you become separated.  New commands allow you to shout out to Six and even hold her hand during times when you need to stick together or work as a team.

The original game had you collecting gnomes and smashing porcelain statues, but in Little Nightmares II you’ll be collecting hats and dispelling the spirits of lost children, both of which have tallies you can view in the chapter select menu.  I thought I was pretty thorough in my initial playthrough but only ended up with half the hats and spirits, so there are a lot of well-hidden secrets likely stashed in cleverly concealed areas.  The hats are a particularly nice feature that allows you to change up Mono’s appearance, and considering how much it rains in this game it felt really natural to wear the yellow rain cap for most of the game.  Other hats have specific functions when it comes to unlocking dozens of impossibly difficult Trophies – not difficult to complete but difficult in even knowing they exist.  There are at least 2-3 Trophies per chapter that you would never figure out even on accident, so prepare to consult a guide if you want to Platinum this game.

Both the original and the sequel are designed around a core of exploration, discovery, and solving a long list of moderately challenging puzzles.  There were probably 2-3 puzzles that had me stumped for more than five minutes, but that only made the “aha moment” of figuring them out that much sweeter.  New to Little Nightmares II is the addition of combat.  Mono can now pickup items like a pipe, axe, ladle or even a stick and start whacking at enemies; a concept that balances between fun and failure with equal success.  Early on you can smack the ground with a stick to reveal bear traps concealed in the blanket of leaves.  Later you will smash a small army of animated porcelain dolls that reminded me of Pinocchio, and a bit later you’ll lose your mind and your patience trying to whack these animated mannequin hands with a pipe as they skitter around like Alien face huggers.  Mono is very small and weak, so he must drag any of these larger weapons around reducing his movement speed, plus actually swinging the weapon requires a lengthy wind-up period with a momentary pause after impact.  You can’t go into these combat situations mashing buttons; you have to watch carefully for visual clues on when you should strike and they can be subtle.

Despite some original locations like a school and a hospital I couldn’t help but feel the designers were borrowing a lot of the visual design from the first game.  There were even some scenes/rooms that looked like they were lifted straight from the original.  But there were also some cool carryovers that tied the two game worlds together like the abundance of discarded shoes littering so many locations.  Even more sinister was finding these full sets of clothes lying about the world as if all the adults had been “raptured” or somehow abducted right out of their clothes.  That’s not to say all the adults are gone.  Each level has a terrifying boss character you must evade and somehow defeat.  Early on it’s a hunter in the woods then a medical examiner lurking in the hospital morgue, but perhaps the most terrifying adult in the game is the school teacher/librarian with this telescoping neck that will totally freak you out.  Oh yeah…there is one more adult that will cause you to lose sleep; the thin man from another dimension that crawls out of TV’s like that girl in The Ring.

Speaking of TV’s there is one particularly clever level that has you using a TV remote to turn on/off TV’s that can then be used as distractions for the zombie-like adults hypnotized by the static, or as teleport nodes that allow you to phase into one TV and exit from its matching set.  These create some pretty cool navigation puzzles and are a nice change of pace from the “find the key to use in the lock” puzzles found everywhere else.  Another innovation on puzzle design is this one area where you must use sound to navigate a maze of passages and stairs with multiple doors by listening in each doorway for the music.

Little Nightmares II looks and sounds amazing.  The art, shadows, textures, lighting, and animation are all fantastic with a dynamic camera that perfectly frames the action yet still allows you slight panning adjustments with the right stick.  The camera also seems to have a greater range of zoom with much of the game being played so that characters appear larger on the screen than they did in the first game, allowing you to appreciate all the subtle details, but the camera can just as easily pull way back revealing just how tiny these kids are as they make their way across a sinister skyline.  The water effects are ultra-realistic with rain falling, puddles pooling on the ground, thick streams of water spilling off of rooftops and gutters and sheets of water cascading down the sides of buildings.

Lighting plays a huge part of the game, not only in setting up the eerie and oppressive atmosphere but also when using your flashlight, which becomes a tactical weapon that can temporarily freeze some enemies when caught in its beam.  The addition of ray-tracing increases the realism with off-screen reflections as well a reflection clarity that is tied into the type of reflective surface.  The volumetric light and shadows are also greatly enhanced in this Enhanced Edition.

The sound design is perfection thanks to Tobias Lilja who created an amazing score that enhances the visuals and sets the mood along with sound effects ranging from realistic natural environmental sounds to some truly horrific supernatural effects.  The paranormal sounds coming from the TV broadcast are terrifying; almost as terrifying as the cries, groans, and screams of the adults when they are chasing you through a level, and the expert use of the newly remastered 5.1/7.1 surround mix will totally immerse you in the experience.  With all of the rain I would love to hear this in a Dolby Atmos mix, but the continuous water effects already had me taking numerous bathroom breaks so maybe not. You’ll definitely want to play this with the lights turned down and the sound turned up.

Overall I had a great time with Little Nightmares II.  There were brief moments of frustration; never with the puzzles but rather coming to grips with the combat timing and numerous moments where a lack of clear depth perception has me missing jumps, grabs, and swings because it was often unclear where Mono was positioned within the Z-axis of this 3D world in a 2D presentation.  There were at least two chase sequences that had me getting stuck on bits of the environment and one combat section with Mono vs 4-5 severed hands that took over 20 minutes to figure out.  Otherwise, controls were nice and responsive.

There were parts of the game that did seem to drag on.  The developers claim the game is twice as long as the first and I felt like an hour of this could have been cut or replaced with a sixth chapter.  There was this repetition of going in and out of buildings, scrambling across rooftops, zip lining down clotheslines with exterior streets and building interiors that all look remarkably similar and eventually got a bit boring.  Even major locations like the school and hospital started to get repetitive.  There was this intelligent design to the first game that all fit into the theme of being on a giant ship.  Little Nightmares II just seems to meander about various design themes, sometimes lingering too long in one place.

As much as I enjoyed Little Nightmares II the Enhanced Edition made the experience even better to the point where I fully completed the game a second time on PC then dove right into the PS5 version and completed it as well.  I had fun with the co-op moments and thankfully Six’s AI worked well with no glitches. There were plenty of cool design elements added to the gameplay, but I think the combat was unnecessary.   I found outsmarting enemies with a flashlight, TV remote, or smashing them with Home Alone-style traps far more rewarding than beating them with a lead pipe.

If you played and enjoyed the first game then this is a no-brainer as the upgrade is FREE.  Newcomers to the game are now going to get the premium experience, while existing players will have to decide if fancy graphics and immersive audio is worth a 6-8 hour replay.  While it doesn’t really continue the story of the first game Little Nightmares II does offer a horrifying peek into a much larger world that will leave you with more questions than you had going in.

NeonHAT Review – PlayStation VR

Neon Hat is like a trip back to 1985 to experience the 2021 we thought the future was going to be.  If that sounds like a mind-bender then it totally fits the bill when describing Neon Hat – a mind-blowing VR racing game from Spain’s Entalto Studios that will leave players nostalgic about the golden days of CGI.

There’s no denying Neon Hat is going for the 80’s aesthetic – and boy does it achieve it.  What the developers call a “low-poly neon world” those of us who were teens in the 80’s will instantly recognize the wire-frame, vector-style graphics as themes straight out of the worlds of Tempest, Star Wars Arcade, and Disney’s cyber-epic love story Tron.  Hel, there’s even some Space Invaders and Miami Vice thrown in the mix.  It’s like a trip down memory lane inside of a VR helmet.

As mentioned, Neon Hat is a VR racing game – but not one like we’ve seen before.  Combining the flying suit of Iron Man with independent jet engine thrusters in each hand (Move controllers), Neon’s Hat’s H.A.T. operator must compete in a series of races, shooting games, and boss battles to beat the game and win the prestigious Net Races competition.  The 3D enclosed racing circuits are decorated with precisely-positioned speed boost hoops which are utterly necessary to beat the three tough competitors.

The dual-thruster control mechanics may seem intuitive during the initial tutorial runs – simply point the thrusters, pull the trigger, and go.  But as the turn become tighter, and elevation comes into play, the control mechanics quickly become a bit confusing – about the closes comparison I can think would be navigating the swimming scenes in Uncharted – the buttons make perfect sense, you keep hitting the wrong buttons under pressure.

For instance, pointing the thruster left will certainly steer you leftward, but doing so too much will most likely slam you into one of the invisible wireframe walls that defines the edge of the course, severely affecting the speed.  In order to actually turn left, you must press the circle face button while pointing left, but if held too long the speed will likewise be severely affected.  It’s a constant dance, aiming the moves, feathering the accelerator, and tapping the turn.  With proper timing there is the ability to perform a kart-racing style powerslide speed boost, but very few times did the stars ever align for that to work for me.

Neon Hat features 10 different racing circuits which can be played in any one of the three base gameplay modes – Race, Pursuit, and Extreme Derby.  Race is the standard player versus bot racers (3), Pursuit has gamers chasing Data Snatcher all while shooting down the Space Invader-themed drones that protect it.  Those two modes can be set to run at either slow, medium, or fast speeds (aka kilobyte, megabyte, and gigabyte, respectively) which really amps up the excitement.  Extreme Derby is already set to gigabyte speed, but with damage turned on for hitting walls and obstacles making it very difficult to complete.

Obviously, with the complexity of VR there is no multiplayer – it’s all gamer vs. bots – but there’s a certain old school nostalgia to that as well.  One shining star are the boss battles that pop up every three races and have a definite feel of dodging fire in a first-person Sega classic Panzer Dragoon.

As alluded to earlier, Neon Hat is a visual treat for an old school gamer like me.  Between the wireframe landscapes, the 8-bit holograms floating by, and the square-brick obstacles in the path, Neon Hat is a visual trip back in time.  The exclusive Synth-Wave soundtrack likewise elicits a nostalgic feeling, albeit thankfully more along the lines of early 2010’s Daft Punk than of 1980’s Jan Hammer.  The music is hypnotic and warm without coming across as cheesy or contrived.

I had a pretty good time playing Neon Hat.  It’s certainly not one of the best racing games on the PS4, nor is it one of the best VR games on PSVR, but as a complete package of gameplay and presentation it’s totally worth checking out because it oozes cool.  And for those old school gamers who remember this stuff, you will have blast travelling back in time to look at the future we thought would be here already.

MORE SCREENS

Fracked Review – PlayStation VR

The PSVR system has been seeing a surprise surge in quality releases as of late, and not the least of which is Fracked, the stellar new first-person shooter (FPS) from the VR-exclusive developer nDreams.  Fracked isn’t your run-of-the-mill on-rails House of the Dead style light-gun shooter that we have become accustomed to in the VR realm – it’s a full-on, free-roaming, acrobat climbing, dynamite exploding, ski-slope escaping romp that is so awesomely immersive that you just might feel like throwing up.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

Fracked is the most awesome VR game that I simply cannot play for more than 30 minutes in a sitting, because on every occasion I end up with something along the lines of seasickness, which is a real bummer because it is such an amazing experience…the game – not the seasickness.

Fracked starts off by immediately instructing gamers that the intended way to play is in the sitting position. Sitting is an absolute must, as the game’s frenetic 360° action would surely result in more than a few accidents with standing gamers.  Fracked then has players link a PlayStation Move controller to each hand (two are required) and re-center the perspective using the Start button.

It’s right about there that the basic tutorial ends, as gamers are immediately throw into a white-knuckle ski run down the side of a mountain trying to keep ahead of an ensuing avalanche.  Having played a couple VR ski games in my time, Fracked delivers one of the better attempts at capturing the thrilling excitement sport – which comes into play more than once in the game.

Upon escaping the avalanche, gamers are thrust into the traditional FPS portion of the game – armed at first with a liberated pistol, and eventually a similarly liberated SMG, gamers traverse through mountaintop factory crawling with blue-faced baddies looking for a fight.  They aren’t the smartest of foes – they run right up on you like zombies looking for brains – but they aren’t the easiest to take down either, so each wave poses a difficult, yet exhilarating, challenge.

Making things even more frenetic is the reload mechanic that has gamers slamming magazines and cocking weapons upon each reload.  At first it all feels a bit wonky, but within minutes it becomes a rhythm of shooting, slamming, cocking, shooting, etc.

Movement is managed with the Move controllers, using the face buttons on whichever controller hand isn’t currently holding a gun; If the gun is in the left hand the right hand controls movement, if the gun is in the right hand the left controls movement.  Since guns are often switched from hand to hand to help fire around corners or from cover this contextual control scheme can get a bit hard to wrap your head around.  I found it best to keep the gun in the right hand for the most part and only use the left if I really needed to grab onto something to take cover or to grab a zip line.

And then there’s the climbing – and when I say climbing, I mean Uncharted-level scaling of sheer mountain walls and monkey-bar climbing over bottomless crevasses.  In fact, the climbing is so exciting and innovative that simply watching someone else play through a climbing sequence in Fracked is almost as enjoyable as actually playing it – as they stretch grasp above, below, beside, and behind themselves in what looks like some strange 80’s aerobics arm-workout routine.

But it all was too good apparently, because it was right about 20-30 mins in I started noticing the headset fogging up, the sweat began pouring down my face, and the strange feeling that I was spinning in my seat.  The headset came off and I could hardly walk straight to the bathroom to splash cold water on me.  That first time, I was wrecked for the night – feeling like the time I’d been on a charter fishing boat all day.  I thought I had caught a bug, until the next day when I tried the game again and it all happened again.  I then decided to experiment with my 16yr old son, I said nothing and let him play through, and at about the same spot in the game he suddenly yanked the headset off and said “something’s wrong – I don’t feel right”.  We tried again the next day with the same verdict.

That being said I probably made it through about an hour and a half of the 3-hour action and all queasiness aside, I was thoroughly impressed.  Fracked is an awesome package – it looks great with its cartoon-style graphics, solid voiceovers, and a great soundtrack.  I really wish I could play more of it, and I will over time – but I’d highly suggest gamers at least take a stab at the demo and see for themselves how cool Fracked is.

In da Hoop! Review – Oculus Quest & Rift S

In da Hoop! is one of those games that makes me glad I stopped scoring game reviews because in my 25 years of doing this I have given out very few zero scores, but this would have been one of them, as what could have been a delightful arcade experience turns out to be totally unplayable on both the Quest 2 and the Rift S.  I originally set out to review this game when it launched on the Quest back in June, but found the game so bad I just decided to skip it.  Then the game released on PC a month later and I thought “surely they got it together for PC”, but nope.  Sure they game looks a bit nicer but all the control and gameplay issues still exist, so rather than a proper review this is more of a warning to anyone who might be considering this $10 lemon.

In da Hoop! tries to recreate those basketball kiosks you see at the carnival or in the big arcades like Dave & Busters; you know, the ones with the slightly smaller hoops and the slightly larger balls so only NBA All-Stars have a chance at winning the giant stuffed panda.  This game starts with you standing by an arcade machine with some buttons to serve as your needlessly awkward interface to choosing and playing the various games in this limited bundle.  I have perfectly functional buttons on my Touch controllers, which made it annoying to have to reach out and touch virtual buttons to move up and down a list, especially since the arcade machine is to my left side and I am right handed.

There is a list of mini-games that slowly unlocks the next game when you score at least one star on the current event.  It was odd that I was playing a basketball game and they start you off by spinning and stacking giant dice.  I suppose this is to get you comfortable with grabbing and manipulating items in VR but sadly, this is where the game’s major critical flaw reveals itself from the very first game and progressively gets worse with each new game after.

The first game seems simple enough; grab the dice and place it on the pedestal so the number six is facing up.  Games to follow including stacking multiple dice on top of each other like some reversed version of Jenga.  Eventually you get to the basketball games where you at first just drop the ball in the waist-high hoop that is right next to you.  The hoop will start to move away then get higher until you finally get to the traditional arcade experience of shooting the balls at the distant basket and have them roll back down the ramp to shoot them all over.  All of these games award you up to three stars based on how fast you do something or how many points you score within the time limit.

So what is the major flaw that makes this game totally unplayable and nearly unreviewable?  Imagine if you dunked your hands in super-glue or perhaps you are wearing Velcro gloves or maybe you’re Magneto and the objects in this game have iron cores.  Regardless of whatever is on your virtual hands they are SUPER STICKY.  That first game where I only needed to spin the dice to a six took me three tries to do the first time because when I positioned the dice and moved my hands away the dice would stick to my hand and roll over.  Now imagine trying to create a wobbly tower of giant dice where the dice wants to follow your hand as you move it away.  It only gets worse for basketball.  That first game where you are just dropping a ball into a hoop…you literally have to stuff the ball deep into the net then pull away quickly.  If you aren’t fast or deep enough you can literally bring the ball right back up through the hoop.  Trying to simultaneously pull your hands away from the ball above the net almost always results in the ball sticking to one hand just enough that the ball bounce off the rim.  And again, this is happening on both the Quest 2 and the PC-powered Rift S version from Steam.

VR has always had an issue when it comes to throwing things whether it’s a tracking issue or the hardware’s’ inability to track inertia and momentum, which often leads to me dropping grenades at my feet rather than throwing them, but this is the first time that “sticky hands” has ever been an issue, especially to the point of ruining what could have been an enjoyable arcade experience.  Every object in the game seems to have zero physical weight, which makes them highly susceptible to any outside influence.

It doesn’t appear that the game is that popular judging from the inactive Steam page and the fact that I am in the #4 slot on several of the game’s leaderboards despite sucking so very hard at this game.  I basically cheated to get my .6 second record time on spinning the dice to six by spinning it to four and then pulling my hands away so the “sticky” turned it the rest of the way to six.

Unless there is some sort of config file variable or options setting for sticky hands that can be disable I don’t see how In da Hoop! could ever be playable let alone enjoyable without a serious patch or update.  I enjoyed the retro vibe of the basic arcade with its fun colors and textures, but the menu controls were needlessly awkward and the game controls were fundamentally flawed to the point where I strongly encourage everyone to skip this game and take your $10 to the county fair or your nearest arcade.  You’ll stand a better chance of winning there.

The Vale: Shadow of the Crown Review – PC

The world of video games has seen great strides in accessibility options for physically challenged gamers, but this is the first time I have come across a game that was clearly designed and possibly even targeting blind gamers.  To its credit, The Vale: Shadow of the Crown works just as well for sighted players; perhaps a bit jarring considering gaming has been traditionally a visual medium, and while games almost always have subtitles for hearing impaired players little attention is given to the blind.  Almost immediately upon starting the game I was reminded of the Netflix series Daredevil that famously added descriptive audio narration, so blind audiences could enjoy a series about a blind attorney turned superhero, and when you think about it this is really no different than the radio dramas of the 40’s and 50’s or the audiobooks of today.

The Vale could quite conceivably be played with your monitor turned off as every element of the menus and interface is spoken along with clear instructions of what buttons you should be pressing.  But an accessible UI is just the beginning.  How do you make a 5+ hour adventure/RPG engaging and entertaining with absolutely no conventional graphics?  It’s well known that when one of your senses stops functioning the others will compensate, and in this case it’s all about the audio.

The Vale has some incredible sound design, both in quality and clarity as well as expert use of positional 3D audio.  The game recommends headphones and I would have to agree provided you have a reasonably good pair on hand.  I originally started the game on my Dolby Atmos home theater setup and had a few nagging issues with overall immersion.  There wasn’t a smooth transition of audio from speaker to speaker.  Instead, you could hear sounds literally jump from speaker to speaker even as early on as when trying to listen for the sounds of a river.  I switched over to my 7.1 gaming headset and found that headphones bring the entire soundscape closer to your head creating a smoother transition of audio as you move around with the left stick or turn your head with the right stick.

I’ll go ahead and take this moment to say just how much better this game could be in VR for two reasons.  First, you have the headset which is acting as a blindfold that totally enhances your reliance on audio cues.  Even without graphics on a screen it is still easy to get distracted with your own gaming environment and lose focus.  Secondly, there is a game mechanic introduced almost immediately where you are taught to keep looking forward while striking to the sides.  If this were tracked to head movement rather than the right stick it would be so much more immersive.  Plus, VR seems to have much better positional audio design just by its very nature.  But enough about that…

So the game starts off with you, a young girl, traveling by wagon to your new castle on the outskirts of a kingdom now under rule by your brother, the new king.  Blinded at birth, you can only hear the creaking of the wagon and the plodding of hooves until your wagon is stopped by a guard who says they are under attack from an invading army and you should flee at once.  Again, everything is voice and sound effects only with nothing more than dust motes swirling around the screen; purely artistic with no relevance to the actual game, nothing to give sighted gamers an unfair advantage.

From this moment you are on your own as you must complete the long and perilous journey home through the winding valley known as The Vale.  In true RPG fashion you’ll need to equip yourself with a weapon; a variety of weapons in fact along with magical abilities and the occasional companion to aid you on several quests while always relying on your most powerful ability…your hearing.  Your ability to identify and locate danger through audio alone is something quite unique.  Hearing a growling wolf is one thing but listening to the subtle changes in that growl to nail the perfect timing of your attack is another.  At first you’ll likely being swinging your stick around wildly, much like any newly blind person would, but once you settle down and learn to listen you can actually start to enjoy the engaging combat system that will slowly rise in difficulty as you learn to mix light and heavy attacks with perfectly timed counters and even learn to fire a bow.  You’ll eventually face off against multiple enemies at once, learn to listen for archery fire, and even traverse some surprisingly terrifying stealth sections.  The sinister audio in these moments really sparks the darkest parts of your imagination.

There is a modest amount of equipment that is pretty basic by most RPG standards, but still manages to offer a variety of gameplay styles.  New gear can be purchased with money earned by completing various side-quests.  Hunting by audio cues alone is an unforgettable experience and just as challenging as you would expect.  There are numerous side-quests that combined with the main narrative will take about 5-7 hours to complete.  The entire game features outstanding voice acting and impressive sound effects to create a living breathing world with absolutely no visual references.  Your imagination will be working overtime as you explore all the dark secrets that reside in The Vale.