Category Archives: Game Reviews

RiMS Racing Review – PC

I’m a huge fan of all types of racing, and if you combined all the time I’ve spent in various driving schools and weekend race retreats I’ve probably logged more hours behind the wheel than I have playing the video games that mimic the sport.  Admittedly, all of my real-world racing has been of the four-wheel variety; NASCAR, Formula, Indycar, and Rally, and I can say with certainly that I have never once entertained the idea of straddling a high-performance motorbike.  After several hours playing RiMS Racing that opinion hasn’t changed.

On the surface RiMS Racing appears to be much like any and every other racing simulation you can play on PC and console.  You get all the classic modes, real-world venues, meticulously detailed career mode that puts you in charge of much more than just driving around a track, and all those other extras you associate with the sport like sponsors, liveries, and character customization.  RiMS Racing offers up the standard Career mode; the meat of this motorbike buffet, as well as Single race where you can customized every element of the race from bike, track, weather, track conditions, and rules.  There is a Private Testing area where you can customize your training and drive laps with no AI opponents and an Academy mode where you can replay challenges from the main Career calendar and try to earn Gold, Silver, and Bronze helmet rewards.

I knew I was in trouble when I crashed seven times on the single-lap tutorial, and then I realized most of this was due to poor controls.  90% of my video game racing takes place with my Logitech wheel and pedal combo while sitting in a racing chair.  This doesn’t translate very well to a motorbike game, so I ended up playing from a normal chair with an Xbox Elite II controller.  The problem that remains is the lack of variable input with the triggers used for braking and gas, plus the fact that by default you have independent brakes for front and rear; something you can combine in the options for simplicity.  I quickly learned that if you are mashing the LT while going into a sharp turn you are going right over those handlebars, and similarly, if you mash the throttle coming out of a turn you are going to wipeout.  There is so much finesse required for something as simple as brake and throttle and the LT and RT don’t seem to have an adequate range of motion to express that.

It turns out there are actual handlebar controllers out there for motorbike games such as this, and if you are the type of gamer who takes this niche sport that seriously then you should probably invest in one.  For the rest of us, you can muddle through the options and game assists and eventually find something that works, plus it doesn’t hurt to be using a controller such as the Elite II with additional buttons, as you will eventually want to split those brakes up for optimum racing and switch to manual transmission where downshifting proves to be more effect than braking in many instances.  I will admit that even after eight hours of playing this game I am still never totally comfortable riding these bikes.  There is always this uneasy feeling that at any moment I could apply too much brake or throttle and dump my ride.  Part of this is due to a lack of tactile feedback in the controller; something that could easily be remedied with haptics such as those in the DualSense controller for PS5.  Sure, you get some rumbly bits with an Xbox controller but nothing that informs your racing situation in real-time.

RiMS Racing delivers up eight superbikes that have been meticulously researched and collaborated on with their respective manufactures to create some of the most accurate and realistic bikes you can drive in a video game; a fact you quickly realize when you start to explore the interactive Pit Stops and incredibly detailed garage mechanic area…more on that in a bit.  And to experience these rides to their fullest, RiMS Racing offers up nine real-world circuit tracks and five road tracks that are reversible for a total of nearly 20 racing venues.

Diving into the career mode will not only present you with more than 70 seasonal calendar events, you’ll also be in charge of every aspect of your racing career as you explore your giant two-story facility that is home to Lodging, Management, Settings, Research, Calendar, and a Motorbike Stand.  The actual racing is handled through the Calendar that either has assigned events or lets you choose from a few options.  Events come in several flavors including; Academy events where you race for cash and helmet trophies, Brand events where you race for parts, Manufacturer events where you race for bikes, Cup events where you race for cash, Face Off events where you race for fame and respect, World Championship events which are the culmination of the other race events, Task events where you must complete various challenges, and Rest events where you just take the weekend off.  Your HQ is nicely laid out and reminded me of similar garage menu systems found in WRC and F1 racing sims.

One area of racing I have never cared enough to pursue beyond simple tuning configurations is the garage/mechanic elements.  RiMS Racing takes this to a whole new level and actually makes it fun.  At any point in a race you can pause the game and bring up a detailed status of eleven key components on your bike.  These are color-coded to show real-time wear and tear that can be addressed during pit stops or in much greater detail between events at the Mechanic area in your HQ.  Here you can buy new parts and sell off your used/old parts in what is perhaps one of the finest garage simulations I’ve ever experienced in a racing game.  It is so cleverly detailed and interactive right down to these mini-QTE’s where you spin the analog stick and perform simple button combo presses to remove and replace parts on your bike.

Other key areas of your HQ are the Research area where you can hire guys to research new tech to learn about parts or even learn about opponents’ racing setups – sounds a bit like spying to me, and even hire someone to track future weather and track conditions for upcoming events; again, very similar to the WRC and F1 tech trees.  There is also a Management area where you can unlock skills with Team Points to help you rise up through the career calendar.

RiMS Racing did have some performance issues; something I wouldn’t expect from a new release running on my particular setup using an RTX3090 card.  As trivial as it sounds, the splash screens during the loads are low-res and frankly a bit ugly with blurry images and jagged edges; almost as if it was a 1080p image being stretched to a 4K space.  Eventually the game switches to in-game graphics for the final part of the pre-race segment and things get better, but once the game was in motion there was plenty of poor performance in both dropped framerates and visible stuttering.  I was running with all options set to their highest settings and even after dropping to 1440p I still had performance dips with multiple bikes on screen or on more complex areas of some tracks.  As I was wrapping up this review I did read somewhere that playing the game in Borderless Window mode can fix this issue.  I haven’t tested myself, but it seems odd since dedicated Full Screen is always supposed to offer the best performance.  Clearly something needs to be patched or updated.

Some other visual observations included the poor perception of speed.  I even left motion blur active in hopes it would help, but I invariably was always going too fast into turns causing me to drift wide or turn too tight and flip the bike.  What looks and feels like 40mph is often 80-90mph.  I ultimately relied way too much on the color-coded drive line and even that wasn’t entirely accurate as my momentum would often send me into the gravel pits.  Other issues included some very long load times; some well over 30 seconds and this was with the game installed on a Samsung SSD drive.  At least it appears to be loading in the entire track because any future restarts or resets are near-instant.

Visually, the game is quite stunning, both in the HQ and all the racing bits including the TV-style presentation.  Weather effects are fantastic with realistic water on the pavement as well as drops and streaks on external camera views or on your helmet’s face shield.  You have six race views ranging from chase, fender, handlebar, and inside the helmet; the latter even realistically muffling the engine and track noise.  You get some great reflections in your side mirrors and some really immersive screen space reflections on wet tracks.  The audio is also quite nice with realistic engine noises and a phenomenal soundtrack that I typically don’t care about, but this was really good.  It also has a streaming option to filter out licensed tracks if you decide to broadcast your gameplay.

Races generally have 10 bikes and they all look distinct and are driven with reasonably intelligent AI.  There is also support for online PvP and local shared/split-screen racing, but I didn’t really get into those modes.  I might report back later if I do, and there is anything worth mentioning.  I was just happy to get a podium finish after a few weeks into my career.  Thankfully you can adjust the overall AI difficulty any time between races and you can always go into driving options and adjust a variety of assists to create something playable and hopefully winnable.

Much like F1 and WRC, RiMS Racing isn’t for everyone.  It’s a hardcore realistic simulation that asks you to do a lot more than just drive, and when it does come time to actually race you’ll find that having half the number of wheels can make the experience twice as challenging.  Aggressive throttle and brake might work with auto racing, but motorbikes require much more finesse just to stay upright let alone actually win races.  This is a whole different world of racing, and if you think you are prepared for it then it doesn’t get much better than RiMS Racing, especially if you love tinkering about in the garage.

Chernobylite Review – PC

At first glance Chernobylite would appear to be just another derivative knockoff of games like Metro, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or any of the numerous Fallout games, but it only takes a few minutes of actually playing the game to see this is much, much more.  Blending real-world locations and events with crazy paranormal, sci-fi themes, Chernobylite will have you exploring, looting, crafting, sneaking, and engaging in deadly combat with man and monster as you search for your lost love, Tatyana.

You’ll be playing Igor who we see in the opening movie traveling by train with Tatyana, but things turn sinister as reality shifts and we are left on a ghost train stuck in the woods following a ghostly image of Tatyana who beckons us to follow her deeper into the forest.  The presentation at this point is outstanding with incredible environmental graphics, trees and grass blowing in the wind, eerie lighting and shadow, and fallout particles drifting around like aimless snowflakes.  It’s all accompanied by a chilling soundtrack that continues throughout the duration of the game, creating and enhancing your emotional investment into the story and gameplay.

Unlike most games of the genre that are linearly driven by the story, here you are given unprecedented freedom to play Chernobylite pretty much how you see fit; at least once you’ve completed the somewhat linear intro and tutorial section.  At first the game appears to have the standard crafting loop of collecting “junk” and turning those ingredients into something beneficial, but all too soon you are introduced to base building where you can collect scrap and turn it into useful equipment for your home base; everything from a workbench to a bed.  You also get to recruit companions and build a team that you can assign to daily missions, sending them out to forage for food, ammo, and other supplies.  The larger your team the more objectives you can complete, which is crucial because missions expire in a day or two.

The core gameplay loop is completing these daily assignments for both you and your men, as well as slowly building up your base and other resources to tackle the increasing threat in the Zone.  Igor has a nifty scanning device that can filter for a variety of resources, sending out a pulse to light up matching collectibles; a very useful tool indeed since the world design and environmental detail is surprisingly rich and complex, making it nearly impossible to find anything without this visual aid.  You can carry a lot of items, most of it crafting materials while other more useful items can get assigned to quick access slots on the D-pad.  Most items fall into either gear or food categories; something you learn when you start trading with vagabonds that wander the Zone.

Igor is a professor in search of a rare substance called Chernobylite that seems to be a byproduct of the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.  This substance has several unique properties including triggering telepathy as well as emitting exotic energy that can be used to power Igor’s portable wormhole generator that allows him to open a tear in space-time and travel through it.  The game makes expert use of this wormhole concept as well as time-shifting sequences that flash back to the 1986 disaster where we see scientists and staff trying to avert the infamous explosion.

There is a lot going on in Chernobylite, both narratively and in balancing the mission assignments and base building where you need to account for comfort, air quality, radiation protection, and sleeping accommodations.  Survival outside the bunker is just as problematic as you must monitor not only physical health but also your mental state (or psyche) and the effects of persistent radiation that slowly eats away at your max health unless treated with a variety of crafted remedies.  You also have larger environmental modifiers that can be crafted to actually improve your surroundings, but these must be concealed so monsters and enemy soldiers can’t find and destroy them.

From a visual perspective Chernobylite truly shines with some of the most impressive graphics I’ve seen this year.  The game leverages the power of RTX video cards to offer DLSS that can reconstruct high resolution images while maintaining a silky smooth framerate with all the details set to maximum, but the game also scales nicely for lesser-equipped PC’s.  I was slightly disappointed that ray-tracing wasn’t offered but the screen-space reflections are still impressive.  The level of photorealism is off the charts here with fantastic scans of real-world locations.  We’ve all probably played at least one game or seen one movie with that signature Ferris wheel and other park rides nestled into that large complex of buildings.  There is even a VR experience for the Oculus Rift that takes you on a meticulously accurate tour of Pripyat and the power plant.  Chernobylite rivals even that documentary-style footage to create a hauntingly original game space both inside and out.  Combined with fantastic character animation, lighting, shadows, and other particle and special effects, this is an exciting and unforgettable experience.

To balance all the praise I’ve been heaping on Chernobylite it’s worth noting the experience might not be for everyone.  The pace of the game is slow, favoring stealth over direct encounters and combat.  The enemy AI is brutally unfair, and once they detect you they seem to have this magical awareness of your location despite any efforts to break line-of-sight or hide.  While the Fallout 4-style base building is fun in theory and does give you some agency over your game experience this type of gameplay doesn’t always blend in with traditional first-person survival games.

Those looking to explore the weapons’ side of things will find a rather disappointing selection of firearms with minimal upgrades and attachments; just another element that indicates stealth is prioritized over combat whenever possible.  Your primary selection of weapons are pistol, shotgun, and machine gun, and the latter two are nearly impossible to find ammo for.  There are a couple of other rare weapons that are so OP they nearly break the balance of the game.  Enemies are also limited to maybe six types, most of which aren’t that scary and only threatening because of their Terminator-style AI and unbalanced scripting combined with poor aiming and no apparent targeting assist.

There is still plenty of fun to be had with Chernobylite and for the right type of gamer this could be your next Fallout 4 fix until something better comes along.  Thoroughly exploring all the missions should make this experience last 10-12 hours, yet despite the non-linear approach to gameplay and the diversity that can arise from base and team building there is very little reason to replay Chernobylite.  Most of the non-mission gameplay just seemed to artificially pad the experience, but I’m not the biggest fan of strategic base building unless it’s in a dedicated game such as Evil Genius 2.

Chernobylite is a great addition to the Russian post-apocalyptic niche genre, and while it is certainly no substitute for a game like Metro it does offer just enough originality, suspense, and intrigue to give it a look.  If you’re on the fence about the balance of actual gameplay versus wading through base-building and crafting trees then you might want to wait for a Steam sale, but I found the game refreshingly original where the good elements almost always outshined the not-so-good parts.

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Synth Riders Review – PlayStation VR

My PSVR getup has been collecting quite a bit of dust this summer, so it was a real chore to get all the cords and cameras and controllers set up again to give the newest rhythm/dance/exercise title Synth Riders a go. But oh boy was it worth it, because Synth Riders might be the best game for the PSVR this side of Astro Bot.

First off – I already can hear you the grumblings of “it looks like Beat Saber” – and yes at first glance there are a lot of similarities between the two VR-based rhythm/dance/exercise titles.  But with only a few minutes of playing, it becomes obvious that Synth Riders is far more about mastering the groove and becoming one with the music, than it is about hacking and slashing your way through a grueling workout.  Synth Riders had me feeling like I’d been transported into a wholly-immersive universe existing somewhere dead center of the classic Rez and Frequency, and maybe well…the world of Tron.

Gameplay is simple – using a pair of color-coded move controllers, the gamer makes contact with similarly color-coded musical notes that appear along the path.  These notes come in the form of single-note spheres to be batted, or as sustained-note rails that must be tracked as they meander up, down and around.  There are obstacles set up along the path that must be avoided by ducking or leaning, adding a bit of whole-body physicality to the groovy dance that inevitably ensues.  Of course, the score is awarded for accuracy, but the real reward is the euphoria you feel from being totally in-tune with the music.

Visually, Synth Riders is incredibly basic, but that’s perfectly OK.  I earlier alluded to the likes of Rez, Frequency, Tron, and Beat Saber, and they all fit into a similar visual aesthetic: a huge, hypnotic, neon-soaked space eliciting a feeling of being stuck inside the innerworkings of a .  Synth Riders shares many of these attributes, but with a bit more background

Offering over 50 songs out of the box (MSRP $25), with an additional 25 available via DLC, there should never be a shortage of music for gamers to enjoy.  While most of the tracks fall into the EDM genre, there are a smattering of punk and rock thrown in to spice things up a bit.  If the 25 DLC songs, they can be purchased either individually ($2 each), as part of one of a handful of multi-song packs ($8 each), or as a complete package with the original game and all the DLC ($52).

Synth Riders also offers gamers the ability to modify their gameplay from the accuracy-based “rhythm” mode, to a velocity-based “force” mode, which is more akin to the likes of Beat Saber. In force mode, it’s the speed and force used to bat the notes away that determines the score.  While this does add another dimension to the gameplay, the rhythm mode was far more rewarding.

If you couldn’t tell already, I had an absolute blast with Synth Riders – and I have to say it’s all about the VR.  If it has simply been a typical screen-based rhythm title, the simplistic visuals and repetitive gameplay probably wouldn’t have kept my interest for longer than an hour or so – but the fact that the Synth Riders universe becomes such an immersive experience under the VR headset, I found myself lost in the game’s unassuming beauty.

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Jupiter Hell Review – PC

Jupiter Hell, developed by Chaosforge out of Poland, is the spiritual successor to a small game called Doom Rogue Like (otherwise known as DRL) and a self-proclaimed “de-make” of the iconic formula fit into a simple and addictive package. Appropriately described as “chess with shotguns,” Jupiter Hell is a true roguelike, meaning your objective is to complete the game in a single life causing you to die repeatedly and start from scratch. The repetitive nature of this gameplay loop is alleviated by randomly generated levels, enemies, and loot each time you play. The game’s lifecycle has a long and storied history. What started as a proof-of-concept later became a joke to incorporate Doom assets. After legal warnings were issued by Doom property owners, Zenimax Media Inc., the developer scrubbed the title clean of all proprietary assets. Needing a fresh influx of capital to finish the project, a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign was formed that picked up traction with larger publications. The game was later put into early access sales on the Steam digital storefront. Initially coded in just 11 days, Jupiter Hell has been updated for nearly two decades and now launches its 1.0 update. None of these trials and tribulations will be apparent when you first crash-land on the moons of Jupiter and begin your first foray into this bloody demon-plagued world.

It’s important to set expectations for Jupiter Hell as it is the Doom formula that fits into the mechanics of this niche genre. For the uninitiated, a roguelike game is defined as having random environments, permanent death, and a turn-based grid environment. This definition is fluid and muddied as people and organizations have tried to put their finger on the genre. Most if not all definitions have fallen short including my previous description because in fact Tetris could then be considered a roguelike. But I digress. The point in defining this genre is to make sure you know what you’re in for. If you find this interesting and would then like to take it a step further and learn the nuances between a roguelike and a roguelite, I would direct you to the scores of passionate computer science majors who would like nothing better than to tell you the “right” answer. This pedantic black hole aside, I would define this game as a roguelike per its developers’ description and leave it at that. The systems governing these specificities are of note because they directly shape the way you interact with Jupiter Hell.

You’ll spend your time picking up increasingly better guns, grenades, artifacts, and armor. You have the classic medical packs and modification pickups, but once you gain enough experience points you’ll be prompted to choose an upgrade path that ultimately favors one style of play over another. Each movement, reload, and attack counts as a single move to which your enemy will be given a chance to respond. As you progress from elevator to elevator and moon to moon, enemies will become more varied and difficult. You will ultimately encounter a final boss, but the fun is found in how you get there then where you’re going. Will you choose to build your player as a hulking melee machine or perhaps a crack-shot pistol-wielding cowboy who favors distance and accuracy. Each time you die, all experience and loot is lost, setting you back to literal and figurative square one. The colorful descriptions of each decision leave you wanting to come back time and time again to forge a different path through this fluid and dynamic world.

The art assets and sound design of the game harken back to 90s shooters on PC. The developers even made a CRT TV effect to interact with the menus and text. The other standout is the soundtrack. The heavy metal adrenaline-pumping rage coming from your speakers heightens the bevy of bodies that lay around your character as you hear him exclaim, “more blood for the blood god!” I love the way the game demands my full attention and even mocks me if I idle too long. My character once yelled at me to “Alt-Tab” back over. All in all the respect paid to the unholy legacy of demon-slaying in the 90s was top-notch and a hell of a lot of fun (pun intended).

This roguelike suffers from the Achilles heel of all games in its genre. Due to its randomly generated loot, levels, and enemies, the first 10 hours of most well-made roguelikes are thrilling and exciting as you knock against the program’s limitations and surprises. Likewise, veterans who have played scores of hours, choosing to beat the game dozens of times to see what new permutation will arise will feel the satisfaction of taking the code to its absolute limits. The problem lies in engaging the player between these two extremes. However, those who choose not to invest such extreme hours into the game will lose interest as soon as you get more than one or two bad random rolls of underpowered loot or overpowered enemies. Likewise, you’ll have some lives that make you feel powerful and skilled as you grab an overpowered gun to mow down underpowered enemies. Game balance and “fairness” with any roguelike is an unsolvable equation that asks the player to put up with a level of frustration in exchange for satisfying unpredictability. If you are a fan of other games like this, Jupiter Hell has a skill depth that you can happily sink hundreds of hours into.

I loved the pacing of this game. Moving as fast as I wanted and trying to react quickly to each new challenge in Jupiter Hell was absolutely enthralling. Likewise, being able to freeze time and think judiciously before my health reached zero felt heady and fun as the distorted guitar begged me to keep shooting. By offering a number of different challenges, play difficulties, and trials modes, Jupiter Hell aims to satisfy both players who only want to beat the game once and those who want to squeeze every drop out of the bloody clockwork innards that make up the game. I identify more with the former and at a $29.99 price point, you’re sure to get your money’s worth. Whether you’ve been playing early versions of Jupiter Hell for years or if you’re brand new to the genre, Jupiter Hell is well worth your time and money.

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Last Stop Review – PC / Xbox X

The Last Stop adventure game has finally released and I must say I am impressed; not with the gameplay, of which there is little, but in just how advanced storytelling has become in these cinematic narrative-driven adventures.  We’ve seen this genre evolve over the years with all of the Telltale adventures and then Dontnod continued to perfect the genre with the Life is Strange franchise and more recently, Tell Me Why and Twin Mirror.  Those looking for classic adventure gaming may be turned off by the lack of traditional gameplay, and Last Stop may be the biggest offender, having very few moments of meaningful input from the player.  You quickly realize your dialogue choices have no real impact on steering the story, and when you are called upon to actually move the character or engage in some trivial mini-game or QTE it actually feels intrusive and even annoying.

As bad as that might sound for gamers, those looking to experience an amazing six-hour sci-fi drama along the lines of Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or Black Mirror are going to love Last Stop.  It has a story that grabs you from the opening prologue and never lets up until the final credits start to roll; so captivating I binged the entire six-hour game in a single sitting like it was the new season of Stranger Things.

Last Stop is comprised of three separate stories, each with its own cast and main plot that slowly intertwines with the other stories in some most unexpected ways.  These are presented as a TV series with title screen and opening credits, and when you start future episodes there is this “Last time on…” recap of the previous episode in case you aren’t binging like I did.  You can choose which series you want to watch by picking the starring character from the subway train menu, but you will need to finish all three episodes before you advance to the next set of three installments.  Eventually the stories converge for a big series finale.

Without any spoilers, here are the three series.  “Paper Dolls” is a fun twist on the whole body-swap genre that swept Hollywood back in the day only this time we see the serious issues involved when it comes to jobs, relationships, and trying to raise a precocious eight-year old…excuse me…eight and a half.  Freaky Friday may have been fun but it didn’t address anything as serious as paying bills and health issues.

“Domestic Affairs” focuses on Meena, a middle-aged woman who previously served in Afghanistan and now works for a tech firm working on some super-secret project.  Just as she is ready for her next big assignment some new girl shows up to challenge her.  We get to explore how her work and her extramarital affair impact her relationship with her husband and son.

“Stranger Danger” is perhaps the oddest of the three series dealing with Donna, a teenage girl who gets caught up with her friends as they witness a series of abductions then spy on and capture the suspect and hold him prisoner in an abandoned indoor pool for several weeks.  This story explores all sorts of issues dealing with friends, family, and trust.

As mentioned, all three of these stories collide in a most unexpected way.  The overlap of these three narratives is continually hinted at with characters walking around city streets and memorable architecture that crosses over between each series.  A drug dealer in Domestic Affairs just happens to have his stash in the basement of the apartment building in Paper Dolls…stuff like that.

Perhaps the biggest callback is the events of the prologue and the finale; events that span nearly 40 years.  In the opening cinematic we are in 1982 London and we see Peter and Samantha running from the cops after Peter swipes one of their hats.  They flee into a subway tunnel, smash through a service door, run along some tunnels and suddenly encounter a mysterious stranger who says, “You’re late” then opens a metal door revealing a blinding green light.  Sam steps through but Peter hesitates, the portal closes and he gets “nicked” for the hat.  The game flashes to present day London and stays there until the end.

While Last Stop excels at storytelling it really drops the ball on actual gameplay, and when it does require you to do something it just seems forced, like having to twirl analog sticks to drink coffee and eat cereal then wiggle the stick to brush his teeth.  This is the kind of fluff we outgrew after Heavy Rain.  There are also QTE moments tossed into random places and even a lengthy button-pressing musical number to hit buttons to match notes as they stream by the piano sheet music.  Admittedly, most of these moments reward you with achievements if done well but they don’t do much to immerse you in the actual story; especially when you are so engaged you just want to know what happens next without having to choose between whisky and bottled water.

What really annoyed me with Last Stop were all the dialogue choices.  You get three options and none of them ever seem to steer the story in any other direction than what the writers have already laid out.  There are a few responses that will arbitrarily earn you an achievement if you are lucky to pick that option, and sometimes all three options will be the exact same.  Even worse, the words shown on the response menu are nothing remotely close to what the character will actually say.  The menu is merely an overall attitude or tone, so you never know what’s about to come out of your mouth, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you say because the story is going to go where it wants to go.  Ideally, I wish the game just had a mode that played itself so I could sit back and watch, and once you realize that nothing you do matters you’ll want one too.

Again, I’m not trashing this game.  I genuinely loved it.  I wouldn’t have sat there for six straight hours if I didn’t, but for those looking for actual interaction in their games this might not satisfy those urges.  Those looking for an amazing story can just pop some corn and sit back for a wild ride.  It is worth noting that there are three decisions in the game that truly matter and change the course of the characters’ lives in significant ways.  At the very end of the game you will be given binary A/B options on how you want to move forward for each starring character in each series.  The game does checkpoint prior to this so it’s not terribly hard to explore all the endings, but it is interesting and surprising to see the outcome of your choices.  I truly tried to roleplay in those moments, and while I didn’t necessarily get the best outcome for everyone I got the endings I felt they deserved.

The presentation for Last Stop is outstanding with a fun graphical style that is very clean and colorful.  The backgrounds are gorgeous and the character art is interesting.  I particularly liked the way that all non-key players in the story were eerily faceless; a great metaphor for how we all tune out our surroundings and those around us in our everyday life.  Character animation was a bit stiff and you could tell these aren’t mo-capped actors but rather hand-animated puppets.  The colors and light and shadows were fantastic and there were fun effects like phone messages that scrolled the screen.  There was good night and day effects and a lot of rain.  I was really impressed with the camera work, each scene shot from some unique angle or perspective, sometimes from an extreme distance or top down.  The game never tells you where to go but is presented in such a way that you just start walking and almost always end up where you are supposed to, even when you aren’t following someone.

The audio package is even more impressive.  I’m a sucker for a British accent and all the slang that goes along with it, so this game was a real treat for me.  The game even puts the slang into your dialogue choices, so there were a few times I was using lingo I wasn’t quite sure of its meaning.  The script was smart and well written and the voice actors all did awesome.  After the first few lines of Molly’s dialogue I said, “that girl is going places” and sure enough, Lulu Simpson is quite the big deal in the UK.  There are lengthy stretches of dialogue and conversations, often accompanying the game’s many lengthy walking and travel segments.  These flow together naturally and really make this feel like a TV drama rather than a game.  The music is equally as impressive, composed by Lyndon Holland and performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and serves to enhance the emotions and intensity of key moments in the story.

Perhaps Variable State should start writing for TV because these guys can really craft a story.  Last Stop would probably see more success on Netflix than PC or consoles, but at least we got the entire game in one drop.  If this had been released in episodes like Telltale and Dontnod it would have failed miserably.  Last Stop is available on Steam for $25 and is also available on all the consoles including Xbox Game Pass if you want to play for free.  I played the game twice on both Xbox Series X and the PC and the experiences were identical.  The PC has fairly modest system requirements, as the game isn’t that demanding.  I was able to play at full 4K with all settings maxed out on an RTX3080 card.  Given the odd interactions like swirling analog sticks the game is best played with a controller.

As long as you go into Last Stop knowing fully well that you will be doing very little and what little you do has minimal impact on the story then you are going to have a fun narrative experience that requires little effort on your part.  Enjoy the ride…

Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever Review – PC VR

Earlier this year I reviewed Zombieland: Headshot Fever on the Oculus Quest 2.   It was an fun arcade rails shooter that made reasonably good use of the movie license, but the Quest 2 has become more problematic for me to use; mostly comfort issues with how it fits on my nose and the way I have to constantly move the visor up and down my face to maintain a consistent focus.  The Quest 2 has started to collect dust now as I have shift nearly all of my VR gaming back to the Rift S.   Thankfully, many games that were originally released as Quest-exclusives have been making their way onto Steam, and I am finally able to enjoy this game with more comfort and greater image quality.

For this  review I played the game on both the Rift S and the Vive and for the most part the experiences were identical from a basic gameplay perspective.  There are some subtle differences, some of which might even be subjective.  I found the image quality just a bit sharper on the Rift S and the Touch controllers felt more natural in my hands as I wielded the variety of weapons the game has to offer.  This is a stand/sit in place game so the room-scale benefits of the Vive never came into play.

Thankfully, movie knowledge is not required to enjoy Zombieland  VR: Headshot Fever, although if you have seen at least the first movie then you will likely recognize the valiant attempt to recreate the four stars of the film in the VR world.  Rather than play as these characters you’ll play the proverbial “new guy” attempting to get a spot in the Zombieland Invitational; a zombie-killing race course.  But first you must prove yourself in a series of relentless VR trial runs.

Once past the initial setup and tutorials, etc. you’ll find yourself in the fancy rec room of some abandoned mansion where Tallahassee, Wichita, Columbus, and Little Rock will dish out missions, compliments, complaints, and advice.  You’ll need to earn the respect of all of these zombie slayers in order to fill up the challenge grid and qualify for the invitational.   Tallahassee will get you setup with weapons and upgrades you can purchase using TP (toilet paper) collected during missions.  You’ll visit him between most every level to upgrade stats to your weapons and install various perks to boost your performance.  Little Rock waits at the pool table where you can choose your missions sorted with a series of tiered skill brackets.  Each mission will have various sub-challenges that will earn you a respect block from one of the four main characters.  Some unlock by merely completing the level, while others require a certain time limit or more skillful challenges like not missing a single shot or finding a hidden item.

Missions are fast and furious, lasting about a minute or less; at least if you want to unlock the speed challenge.  This means you’ll probably replay these missions several times before you unlock everything, as level memorization and weapon tactics are crucial to success.  Sadly, this means that levels are seldom as thrilling as the first or second time you play them.  Zombies run around and come at you in predictable and repeatable patterns; some run, some walk, some crawl on the ground.  You simply need to prioritize the threats and make sure to reload often.

While mostly an arcade shooter there is a bit of skill and precision involved.  Almost all shots need to be headshots or a shot in an exposed section of the torso.  Double-tapping a zombie will earn you precious seconds of slow-motion making it easy to double-tap other enemies and stack the time bonus as well as the combos.  Some zombies will throw items at you that need to be shot out of the air before they hit you, and most levels have a secret item you need to find and shoot/collect.

Your primary weapon has unlimited ammo while your more powerful secondary guns like shotguns and machine guns have limited ammo that can be boosted with upgrades.  Your pistol is your default weapon until you reach over and grip whatever secondary gun you have on your opposite shoulder, and you’ll use that until you release the grip or run out of ammo.  This weapon is best reserved for big bosses and emergency situations, but the pistol works surprisingly well in most any other situation as long as you are a crack shot.

And that’s what Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever is all about; being a crack shot.  Nailing those double-taps is critical to clearing out the levels in record time and avoid being overwhelmed by the zombie hordes.  There is also a fun reload system that requires certain motions unique to each weapon you’ll need to master, since running out of ammo at the wrong moment is the leading cause of death.  You’ll also want to look for anything explosive that might take out a large number of zombies in a single blast.  Once you have earned enough respect it’s off to the Zombieland Invitational where you will tackle the most thrilling zombie-killing race course ever created complete with leaderboards so you can see how you stack up with the rest of the world.

As mentioned earlier the game can be played seated or standing and works fine either way; the game will adjust the height for you depending on your choice.  There is no issue with motion sickness since the game uses travel points to advance your movement by merely looking at the next blue waypoint on the ground.  This keeps the game flowing extremely well since you are almost always looking at the next point after killing the last zombie.  The aiming is extremely accurate, and with no target sight you actually have to aim down the barrel or get really good firing from the hip.  Reloading is easy with a down-flick of the analog stick to eject the mag/clip, and accessing the secondary weapon is fluid and intuitive.  You can even  dual-wield weapons for maximum firepower or maintain cover fire while reloading your other weapon.

The presentation is really good for a VR game.  Obviously, this isn’t going to look like Call of Duty Zombies but more like a Borderlands game with nicely design levels and zombies that range from scary to hilarious, all treated with a stylish cel-shaded filter that keeps the framerate high and the extreme gore not as shocking.  The game looks significantly better and runs noticeably smoother on the PC than it did on the Quest 2.  The sounds and music are excellent and the voice acting is surprisingly good and almost as cheesy as the movie script itself.

I had a blast playing Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever on the Rift S, and now that it is finally on a more comfortable system with improved performance I look forward to playing this game a lot more, honing my skills and shaving off seconds on my completion time; plus earning some of those challenges are crazy-hard, especially the no-miss challenge.  The game works great seated or standing; enemies are always in your forward 180-degrees so you don’t need to swivel.  There is definitely an authentic retro arcade feel to the game that will keep you playing over and over, and it’s also fun to break out at parties and see who can get the best score.  Good luck climbing those leaderboards and remember…Don’t Shoot Homer!

God of Riffs Early Access Review – PC

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

Just when you thought music games were gone forever the genre has seen a sudden and unexpected rebirth in VR.  Last month is was Ragnarock, a Viking drum simulator, and now we have God of Riffs; nothing to do with Vikings but just as rooted in its heavy metal and medieval nostalgia.  Available on Steam Early Access, the game in its current state is nothing more than a demo with only four songs and four worlds.  Three of those worlds I have only seen in screenshots as the only background available to me was a forest world with a giant “Groot” in the background with a city on his shoulders.

So I played these four songs multiple times on both the Rift S and the Vive and found the experiences nearly identical.  The Touch controllers felt a bit more secure when doing the sweeping overhanded swinging motions required to play but the Vive wands felt like I was gripping actual axe handles – just wear those wrist straps.  In God of Riffs you are wielding twin guitars that look like battleaxes; the kind of guitars you’d find lying around backstage after an Iron Maiden or KISS concert back in the 80’s.  One is red and one is blue, as are the streams of monsters coming at you in various patterns that you must hit to the rhythm of the music while matching colors between axe and monster.

At this time there are only two monsters; skeleton warriors and flying winged skulls basically offering you low and high targets to aim for; other monsters to be added later.  The overall visuals are fairly bland with boring backgrounds and crude creature designs that are more comical than heavy metal.  The four songs were okay; all sound very similar and nothing really rocked my world.  God of Riffs will definitely need a track editor that allows you to import your own tracks if it ever hopes to succeed.  Due to the erratic beat structure in heavy metal, and especially these four songs, it is really hard to find your groove with the game leaving you disconnected.  I was more focused on visually hitting enemies rather than trying to sync my actions with the beats of the track.  The music was merely background ambience rather than key to the gameplay – not good for a music game.

My biggest issue with God of Riffs is the actual gameplay and the lack of any visual cues on when you are supposed to hit the monsters.  Most of these games let you hit early, late, and perfect and indicate that visually.  Here, you just have creatures running/flying toward you, and you just swing and hit about the time they step/fly over your progress meter.  There is a smacking sound you get when you hit a creature, but it’s not always consistent, leading you to believe you missed even when the skeleton crumbles at your feet.  In fact, the only way to know you really missed is when your combo counter resets.   You can also hit golden enemies that will power-up your axes allowing you to raise your arm, squeeze the trigger, and send out a shockwave of energy that doesn’t seem to do anything.  No monsters fall as expected, just a cool visual effect.

Early Access games have blurred the lines of demo and pre-release games, and God of Riffs clearly falls into a demo category.  Admittedly it’s a demo that will secure you a copy of the final game sometime in the future, but in its current state the game is pretty rough and even at $5 seems a bit overpriced, especially when there are so many other VR music games already available.  We’ll continue to follow God of Riffs throughout development and update our coverage if and when things improve.  Stay tuned and keep rocking…

Omno Review – PC

I love surprises and Omno might just be the best surprise I’ve had in gaming for many years.  I had no idea what to expect from this game.  I barely remember bits and pieces from a trailer a couple of months ago, but nothing could prepare me for the joyous spectacle and wondrous adventure I was about to participate in with the full release.  Omno is transcendent, achieving a status that AAA games with millions of dollars and hundreds of staff only wish they could attain.  It’s a game I desperately want to livestream but won’t.  It’s a game I find even hard to review lest a spoil one single element of magical discovery that awaits you.

Entering the world of Omno you are greeted with this magical storybook world created from low-poly landscapes and simple flat textures, yet somehow this world is more alive than many photo-realistic game worlds.  Spanning five chapters, you’ll explore all the typical climates; jungles, winter mountains, desert canyons, and lush forests, all modestly detailed with trees and grass, ancient architecture, and a vast catalog of creatures – seriously, you get to catalog all 41 creature types that populate the world.  There is also this green flying squirrel-like creature that will join you for the adventure; remember to interact with him often as he become the heart and soul of the game.

While not specifically targeting kids, Omno is a great game for players of all ages.  There is no combat or violence, just a huge open world of discovery and minor puzzle-solving, much of which is rooted in level traversal and platforming.  The game offers numerous and frequent checkpoints and there is no dying aside from plummeting into the abyss if you miss a jump or fail to float and drowning; your character cannot swim so stay out of the deep water.  The only “damage penalty” in the game is losing a few energy shards after a high fall, but even those gravitate back into your body.

As you advance through the game your character unlocks abilities like Dash, Surf, Teleport, and Float to make your exploration faster, easier, and much more exciting, even integrating itself into some fabulous puzzle solutions where these abilities must be combined.  Even transitions between chapters are fantastic with these breathtaking cinematic sequences where you’re riding a giant turtle, dinosaur, jellyfish, ancient dragon, or even dematerializing into pure energy.

The core game is all about collecting energy from the world.  There are energy orbs scattered about each environment and you need three to power each level’s shrine and unlock the path to the next level, but you’ll need twice that many if you want a perfect 100%.  Energy can be gathered from just about any organic thing like plants and animals.  You can use your staff to release energy shards from rocks, trees, bushes, or interact with any of the creatures you encounter for them to release their energy in unique and delightful animations.  Energy gathered shows up as a strip of light on your arm and when fully charged grants you increased movement for a time.  It also fuels your staff and special abilities as well as unlocking a certain shrine in each level to earn one of those energy orbs.  Also scattered about the levels are books or Glyphs that combine to create a journal telling the story of why you are here and what you are doing.  These also factor into your 100% rating for each chapter.

Omno is all about exploration and your character controls nicely with mostly responsive inputs.  I did notice a bit of lag on the jump button, so I would frequently run off the edge without jumping, but over time I learned to compensate and it was no longer an issue.  The same with jumping and gripping a ledge; if you don’t push forward to climb up you will lose your grip and fall.  There are plenty of platform and jumping sequences, many of which require expert use of the Dash ability to reach the next platform or ledge.  About midway in the game you’ll unlock the Surf ability that lets you surf on your staff on any environment, snow, sand, or even grass.  It basically turns your staff into a hoverboard.  This can greatly speed up traversal and the game even reminds you to use it if it detects you’ve been walking too long.  It’s also easier to surf across ice rather than walk, slip and fall.

The presentation for Omno is magical and often quite breathtaking with these epic panoramic vistas as you arrive at each new chapter and the camera rises up to reveal all that lies ahead of you.  The draw distance is to the horizon so you can see most of the glowing orbs from a single vantage point; getting them is the challenge.  Each environment has specific visual details like the grassy oasis in the desert or the dripping ice off a snowy ledge.  New creatures are introduced in each chapter, around eight per environment, but they will also show up in later levels too.  While the game uses simple architecture and textures there is some really good use of color, lighting, and shadows with god rays streaming through the trees and mountains and the shadows of flying creatures overhead sweeping over the landscape.  The entire world is simply alive; this magical place that could easily exist whether you were here or not.

In additional to the fantastic art design the ethereal soundtrack is a pure work of audio art.  It blends seamlessly with the gameplay and cinematic narrative elements adding a sense of joy and wonder to the entire experience.  I’m not sure how well the music works outside of the game but you can certainly find out as the official soundtrack is available as a Steam purchase.  Perhaps one of the most unnoticed graphical elements is the UI…because there is none.  The only measurable element in the game is energy and that’s depicted on your character’s arm.  Creatures and Glyphs find a home in their own screen and there is no health or life counter to keep track of basically freeing up the entire screen so you can enjoy this epic storybook masterpiece in all its glory.

It took me five hours to finish Omno; I did it in a single sitting without even realizing it.  There was one moment where I briefly considered stopping when I noticed I had cataloged half the creatures, but the game has this uncanny ability to not offer any logical stopping points.  Sure, you would think having five distinct and titled chapters would make that easy, but each level flows seamlessly into the next and offers just the right amount of tease to make you want to explore the new world that lies in front of you and then you are hooked all over again.

Omno is easily one of the best games I’ve played in years.  Not many games can captivate and make me lose all track of time like this one did.  When it was over I was left wanting more; not because the emotional ending wasn’t enough, but I just didn’t want to leave this world.  There is an Extras menu that does offer a Time Trial mode where you can replay the snow surfing section from the game, racing through checkpoints and collecting energy for speed boosts.  It’s fun to do a couple times, but once I broke the one minute mark I moved on.  Now I am simply trying to decide how long I should wait before I replay the game.  I’m only missing four achievements and they look fairly easy to unlock the next time I do reenter the magical world of Omno.

Simply put, Omno is a Zen-inspired adventure like no other.  Nine out of ten Buddhist monks achieved total consciousness playing this game; the tenth just vanished into the astral plane during the closing credits.  Seriously, this is a must-play game for anyone and everyone.  I’m not even going to qualify it beyond that.  The game is out on PC and consoles now and coming to the Switch later this year so no one is left out.  Play it now and thank me later.

LEGO® Builder’s Journey Review – PC

I love LEGO.  I grew up with the plastic bricks, I own every single LEGO game, and I’ve seen every episode of LEGO Masters, so I was pretty excited when I heard about LEGO Builder’s Journey.  Created by Light Brick Studio, this new puzzle game sounded like a great idea; solving puzzles using LEGO pieces.  After all, every other LEGO game I had played up to this point was asking me to smash and destroy environments to collect bricks.

One of the big draws for me was the support for ray-tracing that brings these bricks to life unlike any other game before it.  You feel like you could literally touch and manipulate these elements with your fingers.  Shiny water pieces reflect other parts of the level, and real-time light comes into play for light and dark scenes and even one LEGO that acts as a moveable spotlight.  The game still looks fantastic if you don’t own one of the new ray-tracing video cards but activating RTX features in the graphic options adds a noticeable level of improvement turning a game into reality.

Unfortunately, while LEGO Builder’s Journey is a visual masterpiece there were several obstacles that detracted from my childlike wonder almost immediately; first being the controls and interface.  The entire game can be played with a mouse and the first few scenes teach you everything you need to know on how to play.  Click a piece to pick-up then future clicks rotate that pieces 90 degrees and clicking and holding will snap the piece in place or drop it if you aren’t positioned over a valid connection.   My big issue is being able to line-up the pieces properly.  The 3D perspective combined with any lack of visual cues had me frequently connecting to wrong studs or even worse, dropping the brick entirely forcing me to scramble to click on it again before it tumbled off the bottom of the screen and wait for it to reappear.  This could all be solved with something as simple as a ghost outline showing where the brick would be attached.

LEGO Builder’s Journey has very limited camera controls so even changing perspective couldn’t help me.  You can drag your mouse to pan around the screen but only about 120 degrees.  You can’t fully rotate the puzzle and there are no zoom controls to allow you a better view of the situation or just appreciate the graphics closer up.  To make matters even worse if you do adjust the viewing angle the game will automatically reset the view back to default after a few seconds.

If you are able to overcome these visual caveats then you might find some enjoyment with LEGO Builder’s Journey.  Personally, I found the entire game rather boring with puzzles that were overly simplistic or not even puzzles.  The game provides you with the pieces needed to build whatever object or bridge you need to get from A to B and advance to the next puzzle scene.  It was really weird to see these loving crafted scenes swept away after only one or two clicks on some of the easier puzzles; the time of creation versus their appearance onscreen vastly different.

There appears to be a story being told in LEGO Builder’s Journey, but I’m still a bit unclear on what it is.  Presented as a silent movie of sorts we have what I assume to be a father and son on a camping trip, and once they return home dad keeps getting called into work at the nearby LEGO factory, meanwhile the son builds a LEGO robot in the basement then gets stuck in the factory so dad has to rescue him but then the son and his robot have to rescue dad…it’s all very confusing and quite unnecessary to the enjoyment of the game, which is all about solving a few dozen puzzles.

The basic premise of the game quickly became boring about ten levels in and only started to get interesting when the game introduced new concepts like playing in the dark having to position a LEGO spotlight in certain positions and angles to reveal the level.  Much later in the game there are some cool puzzles involving creating your own LEGO pieces using a machine to duplicate whatever piece you have on a scanner.  And my favorite puzzles were at the very end where your robot would only dispense single stud pieces and you had to place them on the level adjacently to create bigger and more useful pieces.

Despite the charming visuals, soothing music, and almost Zen-like approach to gameplay I was always taken out of any joyous moment with the controls and my inability to accurately place pieces.  There were a couple of puzzles that required very fast timing and precise LEGO placement to get your character across moving machine parts.  These would have been great if I hadn’t died so many times due to poor controls.  Even moving your character can become quite tedious since you have to move these orange stepping bricks one after the other to move him along.  On one level I manufactured a dozen of these bricks and had the entire path lain out but the character only moves after placing the piece, so I literally had to pick up and reattach each piece to move him forward.  There are a few levels where your character is wearing skates and you get to build a train track-like path from start to finish out of smooth tiles then watch him skate to the end.

LEGO Builder’s Journey is equal parts pain and pleasure.  I love seeing how realistic LEGO can look in a game and I hope to see this level of quality in future LEGO action games, but for me this was more of a proof of concept tech demo.  You can finish the game in 3-5 hours but there is no reason to ever revisit.  A sandbox mode would have been awesome; something to just let you build your own creations from infinite LEGO pieces, but considering the abysmal controls this feature would also be cruel in the game’s current state.

Thankfully, there is nothing wrong with this game that can’t be fixed in a future patch or update, but until then, $20 for a few hours of awkwardly snapping LEGO pieces into environments somebody else had all the fun making seems like a bad idea.  Even LEGO enthusiasts such as myself might want to wait for a sale because LEGO Builder’s Journey is a better RTX demo than an actual game.

You can check out the first hour of the game in our RTX video to see the graphics, hear the music, and watch me struggle with snapping pieces together.