Category Archives: Game Reviews

LEGO® Builder’s Journey Review – Xbox Series X

When people think of LEGO video games they think of TT Games Studio and licensed IP from pre-existing brands. Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Marvel, there’s a torrent of similar LEGO games using the same charming formula. I understand some people can’t wait to play these cute leisurely games, but I find myself turned off whenever I see yet another LEGO game coming out. While technically a licensed IP of LEGO, this game looks to do something different.

An arthouse, puzzle game that doubles as a visual showcase is a wonderful palate cleanser from some of the tentpole shooter releases of the last few months. Developed out of Denmark by Light Brick Studio, this small team sought to capture the flow and imagination that happened when you were younger and lost track of time while playing with LEGOs. Originally launching on the Apple Arcade in 2019 it is now available on everything except for the PlayStation platform. This review will cover the Xbox Series X|S versions.

The game design of Lego Builder’s Journey is simple and clear. Within a few seconds, you’ll confidently be solving LEGO-based puzzles of getting one character from “A” to “B.” With only a couple of buttons, it’s obvious that this started as a mobile game ported to the console. Don’t let that turn you off. It’s the charm, atmosphere, and story that stays with you as much as the clever puzzles.

As you begin to solve puzzles you’ll see a story begin to unfold of a father and son going camping. Laying the ground to follow in your father’s footsteps, you can take your time fiddling with different pieces and permutations. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong and the game encourages you to take your time. Eventually, the parent has to go to work and you feel the disappointment of a promise broken as the child is left to make their miniature castle. Left to their own devices, the child finds their way to the basement and sets out on an adventure of his own. It’s remarkable how much story is told without using any spoken or written mediums. It’s a solid reminder of why good stories can be told, but great stories need to be shown.

The showcase of this storytelling is evident through the impressive fidelity of the visuals. Taylor-made for 3D recreation, the blocks look incredibly lifelike as you construct and reconstruct various paths to navigate through. It seems like every bell and whistle that could be turned on for the Series X stood out as something that enhanced the experience to make it feel real. At times, it could be considered a tech demo especially when you consider the length of the game. This leads me to a few criticisms.

There are really only two shortcomings of this game and one is how short the game is. The current asking price is $20 on Xbox (on sale for $14.99). The game is excellent but I just don’t think it’s an attractive time to price ratio. Without much of an incentive to replay, that price will be up for each individual to decide. As a gamer with very little time to play, I personally don’t mind the length but I do think a $10 per. Hour is a lot to ask. It’s not just the game’s length that pulled me out of the experience.

I have a fairly high tolerance for clunky control schemes, but I was disappointed that so much TLC went into the visuals, but not into the controls. Given the geometric view, You’re looking sideways at a 3D object. Your task is to move around pieces on the LEGO grid. What’s frustrating is that you do not have a clear depth of field or view of where you’re about to place your next piece. Furthermore, the reflections are beautiful as the water mirrors light, but using white as the outline color to designate what piece I have selected is too similar to the reflections. At times the game asks you to select and movie pieces within a set amount of time, but it’s frustrating when you can’t clearly see which piece you have selected and where you’re about to place it. When this wasn’t a problem you are lulled into a relaxing and atmospheric paradise, but when you’re struggling to solve a puzzle, it’s an unforced error. Luckily, this only happened a handful of times and it isn’t so severe that it detracts from the overall experience.

The intersection of a heartfelt story, excellent visuals, outstanding soundtrack, and approachable challenges is a beautiful couple of hours spent relaxing. All too often I find myself feeling a bit tired after the competitive twitch shooters I usually play. Furthermore, one more licensed LEGO game from TT is the definition of unimaginative. (I know people love them, but I’d argue that you’re playing the same game reskinned.) It’s a shame that there weren’t more options to make selecting the appropriate piece easier or controls that were a bit more intuitive. All that to say, amid the onslaught of action RPGs and competitive shooters, this is such a refreshing way to spend a couple of hours. LEGO Builder’s Journey was an endearing reminder that now and again I should slow down and lose track of time with a slower-paced game.

Call of Duty: Vanguard – Ultimate Edition Review – PC & PS5

Welcome to another yearly installment in our Call of Duty review series.  These reviews, much like the game, have taken on a Mad Libs style of design where I simply plug in a few variables and generate a review.  After all, if the designers can’t be bothered to come up with something remotely original why should I?  This is an “off year” release for the franchise, as Call of Duty: Vanguard was developed by Sledgehammer, the arguable B-team of alternating studios, and it clearly shows; especially when compared to last year’s Black Ops: Cold War game.  Vanguard falls short in just about every way from technical presentation to game design that has been stripped down to something that can only be described as disappointing.

Call of Duty has clearly become a live service product, as noted by the introductory hub that offers up the last four games including Warzone.  Finding the Vanguard option on the far left, you are given options for campaign, multiplayer, and zombies; pretty standard stuff.  For the purpose of this dual format review I played the campaign to completion on the PS5 but only made it to the third chapter on the PC (Stalingrad) due to horrible screen tearing that was making me motion sick.  So far, nothing we have tried eliminates this screen tearing at either a software or hardware level.  It happening on three very different computers using an RTX3080 and an RTX3090 card.  V-sync in the game and the video card settings does nothing, nor does changing resolution or quality settings.  Sadly, all of our multiplayer coverage including Zombies was going to be based on Mitch’s review of the PC version, so at this time our review is only going to cover the campaign.  We hope to update our coverage once the PC version becomes “playable”.

Thankfully, the PS5 is immune to the screen tearing, offering up a visually pleasing experience with slightly less detail, dynamically reduced resolution, and a few noticeable cuts in special effects and texture quality.  An early and obvious example happens in the second mission after you bail out of a plane and are sneaking through a dark forest.  Distant AA fire lights up the night sky, creating these gorgeous god rays that streak through the trees on PC, while the PS5 merely brightens the scenery without the directional lighting.  Most of the sacrifices on the PS5 are superficial and stuff you wouldn’t even notice unless you were playing them side by side looking for them.

One thing I was expecting on the PS5 was the haptic feedback that really made last year’s Cold War game unique with its variable trigger resistance across the different guns along with the powerful rumble effects for explosions and such.  My hands, or at least my trigger finger, would literally get too sore to play after about two hours.  While there are rumble and haptic toggles in the PS5 options menu they seem to do nothing.  Aside from some slight rumble during the more extreme moments in the game there was no resistance in the triggers and no direct feedback when wielding the larger weapons like the MG42.  The PC version using my Elite II gamepad had slightly better rumble effects; more obvious and effective than the PS5 but still rather generic.

Call of Duty has always offered up a great story/campaign mode, except for the one year they didn’t.  Vanguard is all over the place with its story, both in structure and pacing.  There is no real linear narrative; rather you start the game with a very exciting train mission stripped right from Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, followed by an assault on a submarine base that ends with one team member dead and the rest tossed into a holding cell at Nazi HQ.  For the rest of the game leading up to the final mission you will get to play out the origin stories for the surviving members of Vanguard, as each is interrogated by the SS as to their knowledge of Project Phoenix.

This leads to a rather sporadic gameplay experience where you don’t play any one character long enough to truly care about them.  It does offer the unique ability to present key WWII battle moments spanning multiple locations and times during the war.  One minute you are sneaking through a frozen Stalingrad and the next you are sweating away in the African desert going up against Rommel’s tank forces or dive bombing a Japanese aircraft carrier in the Battle of Midway.  There are admittedly a lot of thrilling moments throughout Vanguard but nothing seems to gel or come together as one cohesive story.

Part of the pacing issue has to do with the abundance of cutscenes, all of which are excellent quality and tell their compelling part of the overall story, but overwhelm the gameplay with their constant interruptions to the point where you often toss your controller in despair and go make some popcorn.  Looking at the chapter breakdown there are 18 selectable thumbnails, half of which are filmstrip icons indicating a story break.  And this doesn’t even factor in the in-game cutscenes where more exposition is delivered during lengthy, scripted, non-interactive moments.  To make matters worse, the major cutscenes are pre-rendered and displayed at a locked 24fps, which can be very jarring after playing the game at 60fps.

Another limiting factor is the lack of any hidden intel hidden throughout the game that would incentivize replaying levels or even exploring beyond the narrow linear path you’re meant to follow.  With the exception of the expansive post office level that feels more like a multiplayer battle arena, most missions keep you locked on a very strict path leading to compact encounters and scripted action sequences.  Since there is no intel and no reason to explore the level designers weren’t compelled to create anything beyond the intended path, almost giving Vanguard an on-rails feel.

Arguably, most people who play Call of Duty aren’t here for the campaign.  Sadly, I gave up on having any sort of fun with the multiplayer modes that have since become so monetized and live-service oriented, and even the zombie mode has been slipping over the years.  I dabble with each new installment during the pre-release betas and pretty much get my fill of the immature community and cookie-cutter game design, which this year has been stripped down to the bare basics.  Hopefully, Sledgehammer can fix their v-sync issues so my PC reviewer can complete his coverage on the various multiplayer modes including zombies, otherwise I may have to suck it up and give the online modes of the PS5 version a shot.

Call of Duty has been slipping over the years and now I hear this is the worst selling installment in 14 years.  Sadly, I’m not surprised.  With a disappointing campaign where you watch as much as you play and stripped down multiplayer and stale Nazi zombies, Vanguard truly is the icing on the expired cake of Activision’s day-old bakery.  Hopefully Activision starts to realize that we don’t need yearly rushed and incomplete installments, and fans are perfectly happy to wait for quality.  Just look at Halo Infinite.  I guess we’ll have to wait until next November to see if Activision gets the message. Until then, keep on soldiering and hopefully we’ll be back with a multiplayer update soon.

If you want to see Vanguard in action check out the first 90-minutes of the game in our PS5 First-Look video.

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Twogether: Project Indigos Chapter 1 Review – PlayStation 4

Twogether: Project Indigos is another release from Spain’s PlayStation Talents program, this time from Madrid-based developer Flaming Llama Games.  This brief two-character teamwork-based puzzler definitely hints at burgeoning talent from its indie developers, but is ultimately weighed down by finicky controls and overused puzzle design that makes it seem more like a proof-of-concept trial rather than a full-fledged release.

Twogether: Project Indigos tells the story of a group of kids endowed with supernatural powers, who are being held against their will in the laboratories of the Hexacells Corporation.  Hexacells is using the kids to nefarious ends by harvesting the fluids from their heads, in an effort to share their supernatural powers with their rich investors.

One afternoon, something happens in the lab and two of the children are freed from their rooms; Sam, a boy with the power to teleport to wherever he can throw his Rubik’s cube, and Rafi, a girl with the power to move large objects through telekinesis.  The two meet up in a hallway and decide that if they work collaboratively, they just might have the opportunity to escape the Hexacells facility and free those that are left behind.

Each puzzle requires the use of both characters’ powers.  Sam might climb onto a box that Rafi will lift with telekinesis, putting Sam at just the right height to toss his Rubik’s Cube through a broken window, so he can teleport into the room and unlock the door from behind.  Or Rafi might lift a box to block one of the overhead radiation lights so Sam can walk underneath without being irradiated into oblivion.

The cooperative puzzles seem very unique the first few times you do them, but after a few levels they become a bit stale.  It might have helped if the characters had more than one supernatural power, but with each kid being a one-trick pony of sorts, the solutions quickly become obvious.  In fact, the after short while, any challenge comes only from the wonky controls and fussy level design, which require near-exact positioning to interact with objects or block the aforementioned lights enough so Sam doesn’t have to respawn a half-dozen times.

Looking very much like a classic 3D platformer with comic-book stylings, Twogether: Project Indigos is actually visually impressive for an indie title.   The atmospheric audio is quite impressive, with synthesized cinematic quality music thick with reverb that delivers a futuristic ambiance.  It’s only too bad that there are no voiceovers in the game – all narration and character dialogue is expressed via onscreen text. Still, other than some moody (but eerily accurate) teen speak that grates my nerves as a parent of teens, the text the job done.

As I alluded to earlier, Twogether: Project Indigos is quite short, only an hour or so of total play.  The full title includes the parenthesized “(Chapter 1)” which combined with its relatively cheap retail price of $9 is a pretty good indication that there are planned sequels to follow.

I sincerely hope that if Flaming Llama does come out with a sequel, that they take the time to make some tweaks to the controls and overall gameplay, because while Twogether definitely showcases promising possibilities, the overall experience is a bit lacking in depth.

The Wild at Heart Review – PlayStation 4

As a fan of the Pikmon franchise, I felt at home playing The Wild at Heart. The Wild at Heart is a truly enticing successor to Pikmon if there was ever need of. The art style feels like you have entered a children’s book and looks fantastic. Between the hand drawn environments, characters, and enemies The game does not rely solely on the art style as the gameplay is outstanding as you use your knowledge to solve the puzzles of the forest. The story is engaging with plenty of content to find throughout the world.

You play as Wake, a young boy who decides to run away from home. He gathers up supplies for his escape like his trusty handheld game console, PB & J sandwich, and homemade vacuum. He heads off to the woods and follows the map he made where he is supposed to meet his best friend, Kirby, so that they can both leave their troubled childhoods behind. He gets lost however and ends up in a very deep part of the woods where he discovers a weird creature who he follows deeper into the woods. Once Wake gets deeper, he finds a group of people who are trying to contain an ancient evil called The Never. This group of guardians need Wake’s help gathering all their lost friends in the Woods.

 Exploring the woods is not done alone though as you befriend forest creatures called spritelings. These little ones follow you around and can complete all sorts of tasks like build bridges, move massive stones that are blocking paths, as well as fighting against hostile enemies. As you go deeper into the woods, you find different types of spritelings that will be useful in different situations. It is simple and quick to switch between the different types too. As you gain access to different types of spritelings and increase the number that can follow you around, you’ll uncover new pathways and hidden secrets. It’s a real joy to explore all the different areas of the forest and try to find every hidden item.

Once Wake finally reunites with his friend Kirby, you’ll be able to switch between the two of them and have them move around the forest separately. Kirby can squeeze through small tunnels and access areas that Wake can’t reach, whereas Wake can use his homemade vacuum device to activate wind spinners and suck things towards himself. The puzzles start out simple but then gradually become more and more complicated as the game progresses. You’ll find yourself revisiting some areas as you try to complete some of the puzzles or find your next course of action, but it never starts to feel repetitive.

There is a day/night mechanic that changes the environment at night causing it to be more dangerous to travel. Never creatures will come out and start to attack you and your little spritelings forcing you to retreat and safely wait out the night at camp.

In the beginning, it can feel as if night comes way to quickly and force you to make split decisions last minute. I would be exploring new areas and would have to retreat to camp due to being low in health or need more items for healing. On the other hand, there are a lot of useful things to do at your campsites. At camp, you can craft new items using the scrap and materials you’ve found as well as hatch new spritelings to join you. Camping for the night restores you back to full health. It also lets you see into Wake and Kirby’s dreams. These dreams show you more about their lives before the deep woods. This helps build onto the narrative and help you understand and relate to the two protagonists. There are plenty of other things to do when you aren’t exploring or fighting the Never. From completing bounties and finding cats, there is always something to do in this magical world.

The Wild at Heart is a magical and well-designed game. With its enchanting music and gorgeous hand drawn environments to explore, it’s a beautiful adventure that will keep tranced until the end. Using spritelings to solve puzzles and fight on your behalf is a fun gameplay mechanic and adds lots of interesting dynamics to the puzzles. The Wild at Heart is a fantastic game and deserves to be bought and played!

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review – Xbox Series X

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy Definitive Edition launched in a laughable state. Since then, it has received several updates addressing the deluge of bugs, poor performance, and graphical blunders that plagued these beloved games. At the time of writing, patch 1.03 went live, and I have only reviewed the patch notes. I will endeavor to give you my unbiased impressions as I only recently dug into the background of how and why these games launched in the state they did. While I attempt to not jump on the dogpile of gifs showcasing the bizarre and befuddling bugs, I do want to give my honest impressions.

Having played the originals (Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) when they first launched in 2001, 2002, and 2004 respectively, I expected the rose-colored glasses of my youth to get a reality check. What I didn’t expect was to continually scratch my head and think, “that doesn’t look right.” Public relations crisis aside, how do they play, and more importantly are they worth $60?

For the uninitiated, the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect. Faithful to its name, you steal cars, mow down mobsters (or civilians if that’s your thing), larceny, arson, and general skullduggery. You’ll get updated controls, however, even updated controls for Rockstar games are still PS2 controls. If you’ve ever smashed an X button to death in order to outrun the law, then you’ll be right at home.

Playing through the games, you see the original design concept of an open-world game that reacts to you. This was groundbreaking at the time and with each title, Rockstar steadily increased scale, complexity, and quality. Grand Theft Auto III feels so small in comparison to the other two games. Likewise comparing this old watershed game to modern open-world games is like revisiting your childhood bedroom. It just felt so much bigger when you were younger. This isn’t a bad thing as you can beat GTA III in about 5-7 hours. The other two games are a good bit more time to see credits roll. Although this is on the patch list, when you saw fly over San Andreas, you get a sense of how large games are now in size.

Modern control schemes and native resolutions built for today’s televisions are a great touch, but it’s the bare minimum I’d expect of any game. The games ran well enough on my Xbox Series S|X, but the issues come in when you consider what they’re running. Of course, I’d expect modern consoles to run PS2 games without dropping frames. The issue comes in when you look too closely at the character models and textures. To understand what graphically is happening you have to understand how the game was developed. It’s one thing if character models, set pieces, and rain effects were designed to look artificial, but we know that the original intent was gritty, immersive, and raw. Instead what we see is plastic-looking, artificial, and bizarre.

The project was outsourced to a development house that specializes in mobile ports called Grove Street Games. You can begin to see how this project lost its way. No disrespect to the studio, but they are clearly marked as a support studio that specializes in porting console games to mobile. It is apparent that the studio used AI image upscaling to streamline the workflow of “remastering” the assets. The result is inconsistent at best and characters look like melted action figures at worst.

To make matters worse, not all of the beloved soundtrack is present in this definitive edition. The music industry’s notorious copyright deals are a nightmare to navigate. However, if the aim was to bring these old games to a new generation, they missed the mark. I must assume someone was in charge of playtesting these games before going gold and charging people a premium. Because Rockstar saw fit to issue take-downs to modders who had worked on PC versions graphical upgrades, this is now the “best” legal way a consumer can experience these games. I hope Rockstar continues to release updates and seeks to make right what was an unforced error. Furthermore, given the revenue generated from GTA Online, there really was no reason to release this at this time. Consumers should expect more from publishers and developers. Likewise, console storefronts should have higher expectations for the content they allow to be sold.

I can’t say that I had no fun knocking around my old haunts. The older quest structure and dialogue made me nostalgic for the times when we’d turn the TV volume down lest my parents find out what games we’re playing. However, the launch version of this game was unacceptable. The Definitive Edition should at the very least hold up to the original Likewise, fans who purchased this at launch because it was a Rockstar game, have every right to be upset. There’s a long hill to climb to reclaim the goodwill Rockstar games carry in the meantime, I still have a couple of PS2’s lying around.

Mobile Suit Gundam Battle Operation Code Fairy Vol. 1 Review – PlayStation 5

It’s almost 2022; why aren’t Gundams and mobile suits already everywhere in society? Toonami really got me back in the 90’s with all those ads for “in the near future”. Guess I’ll make do with the release of Mobile Suit Gundam Battle Operations: Code Fairy Vol 1 developed by B.B Studio co and published by Bandai. Thank you, Bandai, for not giving up on us fans, in fact, give us more! Code fairy uses the Battle Operations 2 engine from the game of the same name released for PS4 and PS5. It’s been adapted to give us a single player experience in the form of Code Fairy.

The story is given to us in a multitude of ways such as audio snippets, anime style sequences including previews and opening and closing sequences. I found the anime sequences the most interesting because every chapter had an opening theme, a closing them and a preview as well, just like something you’d watch on T.V or more likely your favorite streaming service. I won’t deny that I got over those parts of it around the 3rd chapter when I realized it was going to happen at the end and beginning of each chapter. They had a great color; characters were appealing, and I could see them making a compilation of them and calling it a side story show or short movie.

You take the role of Alma, a rookie thrust into leadership of “Noisy Fairy” a covert all female squad under the Zeon side of the war. Code Fairy takes place during the one-year war from the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, and the battles are in North America. As you progress through the story you will start to understand that Alma isn’t just your regular pilot.  It’s my understanding that she has some sort of special ability that makes her so good at piloting mobile suits. She is supported by two other pilots; an engineer called Mia and Helena who you pretty much leave to their own device the first couple of chapters until they introduce the ability to mark units for them to focus and pilot abilities which are special skills on short cooldowns such as instant repair of your suits, decreased damage taken and increased mobility to name the basics. As your pilots level up they earn more, but I hate to say it, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” really came into play with these.

Beating missions and completing certain objectives unlock parts to increase the stats of your mobile suit, so I was excited to try out the hard mode that you unlock when you beat the game the first time, hoping it would give me the chance to earn a new suit to pilot, but aside from making the enemies harder by having them take less damage and dodging more, nothing was to be earned. The part I did like was unlocking side perspective missions that you could play the same missions from the perspective of Alma’s compatriots, so you could play the game in a sniper role and in more of a support role. It gives you more insight into what was going on with them while you were off doing your own thing in the main story and also fight in a much different manner than what you were used to.

The battles consist of your typical kill all bad guys, defend the location and one where we got to destroy a convoy. At a few different points you did finally get to fight someone in the titular Gundam suits but nobody canon from the shows that mattered, and frustratingly I’d defeat them in one battle just to have them come back later in a newer suit.  Those named bad guys that never die sort of battles are frustrating and really took all the glory out of beating them. As this is based on the B.O games the battle triangle still exists of mobile suits being categorized as three types, Raid, General or support with each having a weakness and a strength against another, something I’ve never understood because if I get stabbed with a freaking beam saber it shouldn’t do any more or less damage due to my typing.

As I’ve said, the anime style visuals are great when you aren’t in battle, then it switches to the Battle Operations 2 engine that they have been using for the game that this is based on. I’ve played Battle Operation both on PS4 and PS5 and Code Fairy doesn’t really seem to improve on any part of it. The mobile suits, because that’s what they are actually are, that you pilot are essentially custom grunt unit models that the pilots utilize the whole first 5 chapters that Volume 1 is comprised of, near the end one of them gets a newer model but you as the protagonist/main character use the same suit the entire game with the ability to change your primary weapon from a rocket launcher to a machine gun after the second chapter.

Do they look good? I can’t deny that they look good, but compared to what is the question? They look the same as they do in Battle Operation 2. The issue that I’m getting to is that being called a Gundam game, hell even a Battle Operations game, I expected the ability to customize and change my suit or get a new one at some point, but I digress. Gundam Battle Operations: Code Fairy Vol 1 and Vol. 2 are out now with Vol 3 coming Dec 3rd.

YUKI Review – PlayStation VR

When I was assigned the review for the incredible new “bullet hell” VR game, YUKI, I had no idea what I was in for.  As someone who thinks of the bullet hell genre as following the traditional 2D scrolling format, I wasn’t thinking about the classic third person shooters Panzer Dragoon Orta and Rez, both of which YUKI resembles in all the best ways.

The game starts in the bedroom of a young girl who is a massive fan of anime character Yuki the Space Ranger.  Armed with two PlayStation Move motion controllers, the gamer opens a toy box and pulls out a Yuki action figure, officially entering the world of YUKI as seen in the imagination of the little girl.

What commences is one of the most intense VR games to hit the PlayStation 4 in a long time.  When they say bullet hell, they really mean it.  The screen is literally filled with bullets, and Yuki’s only defense is to use her bladewings to dodge and evade, her shields to protect, and her weapons to blast her way out of the storm.

This is accomplished with the right-hand PlayStation Move controller, which controls movement, aim, and firing in an incredibly intuitive control scheme. Again, Yuki is intended to be an action figure seen in third person perspective, so the gamer is free to use every degree of freedom to twist and tilt the character, noodling her around the incoming waves.

The left-hand PlayStation Move controller controls a small ball with cat ears (think Dragonball Z or Pokeball) that is used to collect in-level power-ups, and the blue orbs that serve as in-game currency used to purchase charms that serve as resident power-ups. Thankfully, the collection ball is immune to enemy fire, because keeping Yuki safe is plenty tough on its own, but the added attention required to catch all the incoming power-ups and currency orbs is enough to leave you cross eyed.

I’ve reviewed a good number of PSVR games, and YUKI definitely rates at the top of the pack when it comes to presentation. The level design is simply amazing, with some of the most intense VR visuals I’ve ever experienced.  There’s a thousand moving parts on screen at any given time, and the vibrant colors and cool hybrid 3D/2D anime make it a simply mesmerizing experience.  And when the bosses show up, it takes on a special visual magic.

YUKI is not an easy game, and gamers will find themselves replaying levels over and over as failure means restart – but YUKI is such an amazing experience, that replaying levels seldom seems like a chore.  And the ability to garner more blue orbs and purchase more power-ups to add to your arsenal makes it all the more worth it.  And if you think YUKI doesn’t seem as “action-oriented” as other VR games, you are wrong – YUKI will leave you breathless and utterly exhausted, like you just got out of arm day at the gym.

I cannot say enough about YUKI, as it’s a fantastic game in the PSVR library and with a $20 MSRP, VR owners can hardly go wrong.

Insomnis Review – PlayStation 4

Insomis has been making the rounds on the net in various forms over the past two year, before finally achieving its 2021 release on the PS4 – which is fitting as it was produced by fledgling Barcelona-based indie developer Path Games as part of the PlayStation Talents program.

A first-person horror puzzler, Insomnis does a fairly good job delivering a generally disturbing atmosphere as the gamer explores the dilapidated (and haunted) mansion once belonging to the recently-deceased grandfather of the game’s main (and only living) character, Joe Castevet.

Upon Grandpa Roman’s death, Joe receives a message from his grandfather’s lawyer informing him that he has been bequeathed the mansion as a part of the will. Joe arrives at the mansion late at night in the midst of a storm, leaving him little more to do than to explore the eerie mansion uncovering clues that indicate a dark family history.

For an indie game, Insomnis is initially quite impressive in its overall sense of tension and vulnerability.  With only minimal lighting, tense background sound effects and music, and disturbing artwork scrawled across the walls, there is always an impending feeling that something sinister is going to happen.  Only, it doesn’t.

Seriously, other than a few jump scares scattered around – at no point is Joe in any real harm in the entirety of Insomnis.  The NPC’s are simply there for the scare factor and to provide additional clues, as they pose no threat to Joe whatsoever.

The gameplay is all about wandering the halls, entering rooms, searching drawers and cupboards for items, and solving random puzzles which help you repeat the process.  There’s a lot of backtracking to-and-fro as previously-locked doors are suddenly unlocked – most times with little-to-know no indication as to why.

I’m the kind of gamer that likes to have a good handle on what’s going on and where I should go next, and I never felt like I knew what the hell I was supposed to do next while playing Insomnis.  The result is that what started off as intriguing, quickly became irritating, and I would have completely nodded off if it weren’t for the few startling scenes of kids slamming doors or crawling across the ceiling to shock me back into consciousness.  If you ever downloaded and played Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills demo P.T. a few years ago, the demo in which you kept circling the same halls over and over waiting for something to scare the bejeezus out of you – welcome to Insomnis.

Once again, for an indie game, Insomnis does a great job with the eerie presentation.  And kudos to the Spanish developer for doing a great job translating the game to English – including the handful of voiceovers.  And even though I found a handful of the puzzles were actually quite clever, the fact that I found more interest in finding the hidden collectables than actually playing the game is a pretty good indication that the overall gameplay is lacking.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Review – PC

I love a good scary game and Supermassive Games has been delivering some great interactive narratives ever since Until Dawn back in 2015.  Borrowing heavily on the design elements of that fantastic horror adventure, The Dark Pictures Anthology was born just four years later with a new series of cinematic games kicking off with Man of Medan followed by Little Hope a year later and now House of Ashes this October.  All of these games, including Until Dawn, follow the same basic structure dealing with a group of people put into dangerous and terrifying situations and you must try to keep as many of them alive as possible as you swap out playing various members of the cast.  The entire thing is “hosted” by the Curator who introduces the story and occasionally reappears to check in and comment on your progress and even offer a hint if needed.

Of the three games released so far Man of Medan remains my favorite to play because of the diverse cast and branching storylines, but when it comes to actual story House of Ashes definitely wins for best narrative.  Set in 2003 we join a group of soldiers in the Gulf War searching for chemical weapons following the capture of Saddam Hussein, but not before a brief and terrifying prologue set 4,000 years prior where we play as a Sumerian temple guard defending against an invading army.  How these two events tie together will quickly be revealed.

I won’t even begin to spoil the adventure ahead because it is full of twists and shocking reveals that genuinely surprised even me.  You’ll get to play as most every member of the cast, experiencing all the relationship drama and claustrophobic terror of being trapped hundreds of feet below the surface while being stalked by bloodthirsty monsters that feed on actual fear.  Prepare for plenty of split-second decisions, QTE’s, and that infamous button-tapping EKG.  With multiple plot paths all leading to an insane climax, how many soldiers can you keep alive?

As expected, House of Ashes maintains that same level of cinematic quality with exciting locations, and a diverse cast of characters all expertly portrayed by actors lending their voices and motion-capture performances to create a truly interactive movie.  My only issue with the game was the character model for Rachel King (Ashly Tisdale) that goes well into “uncanny valley” territory.  Her voice performance was fine, but knowing what Ashly looks like in real-life and seeing this creepy recreation in the game was really distracting; not that having her drenched in Carrie post-prom blood for the final act of the game wasn’t already distracting.

The audio mix for this game is truly terrifying; especially if playing in a surround sound setup or with good headphones.  The screeches and echo location clicking of the monsters had my nerves frazzle throughout most of the game.  The voice acting is outstanding, the music is thrilling, and the entire sound design is worthy of a feature film.

You’ll definitely want to play House of Ashes with a controller, as there are plenty of button-mashing QTE’s that simply don’t work as well with a mouse.  My only issues with controls were the rapid-tap sequences where you have to mash a button to fill up the circle.  This was very difficult to do using my thumb, forcing me to alter my grip on the gamepad and use my index finger.  Another minor annoyance was how the game lulls you into just watching it then suddenly springs a QTE on you with no warning.  The game also has the uncanny ability to know when I am taking a drink or scratching my nose and spring a QTE on me.  Thankfully you can fail a few of these before permanently altering the story.

As with previous games in the anthology House of Ashes can be played alone or with friends both online or in a local party mode for up to five players who all share a controller and play chosen members of the cast.  The online mode is particularly cool because players can be seeing and experiencing their own events simultaneously before coming together in those shared moments of terror.  There are numerous paths to explore and a very clever cinematic credit sequence that recaps your choices and reveals their outcomes at the end.  You’ll definitely want to play this adventure more than once, and there is even a Director’s Cut available to experience even more of the story.

I really enjoyed House of Ashes.  It had some truly terrifying moments, great story reveals, interesting relationship building, and a cinematic quality that you don’t often get in horror adventure games.  A single pass through the story took me just over six hours and only earned me seven of the thirty possible achievements, so there is plenty of incentive to revisit this game in the future and definitely share it with friends.  House of Ashes is definitely an improvement on Little Hope and hopefully a sign of great things to come when the anthology wraps up next year with The Devil In Me.  Until then, I’ve got a lot more adventuring to do.

If you want to see House of Ashes in action, check out our gameplay video for the first two hours of the game with commentary.

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