Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age Review

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age

The Final Fantasy series has always been about reinvention, and the twelfth incarnation embodies this to such an extreme, that you might catch yourself wondering if this is a really a game from the long-running RPG franchise at all. Not only is it deserving of the name, but it’s an RPG through and through, where monster hunting and exploration of spacious locales effectively feed into its stat-based progression within an ensemble cast of colorful personalities. Like its predecessors, Final Fantasy 12 puts its own spin on how chocobos, summons, and characters named Cid play into its epic journey. With its long awaited remaster ready for release, Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age puts its best foot forward with a wealth of improvements and changes, delivering a fresh experience even if you’ve memorized the path from The Phon Coast to The Tomb of Raithwall.

For those who thoroughly enjoyed the PS2 version of Final Fantasy 12, The Zodiac Age is not only a remaster, but also a remix. Keen eyes will notice subtle tweaks to enemy locations and even changes to the selection of merchant goods. Some of these modifications are in service to the character-enhancing License Board, which itself has been overhauled from the original game in order to give each party member more distinctive jobs and abilities. Along with the inclusion of a Japanese voice track and improved loading times, the option to toggle between the original and reorchestrated versions of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s exquisite soundtrack is a welcome feature. Lastly, the improved high definition visuals brings out a fetching painterly look to the characters’ faces. As a PlayStation 4 exclusive, The Zodiac Age stands out as a feature-rich rerelease on a platform with a bountiful selection of lesser remasters.

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Even if it were an untouched port, Final Fantasy 12 would stand out for its distinct handling of familiar elements. For instance, there’s a thriving society centered around hunting, a gig economy where skilled fighters of many races vanquish the game world’s most hostile creatures. Being recognized and awarded for taking down bounties effectively weaves a part of FF12’s story with any player motivation to complete the bestiary. Equally notable is the emphasis on thievery, which is also narratively tied to the resourceful nature of Vaan, one of the playable characters. You won’t go far if you relied solely on money from defeated monsters and treasure chests. Riches instead come from the sales of loot you acquire from the creatures you take down. Much like Final Fantasy 9’s Zidane, Vaan’s stealing skills helps players develop an appreciation for the series’ long line of talented but sometimes overlooked thieves.

Further driving the distinctiveness of Final Fantasy 12 is its setting of Ivalice, an established universe with its origins outside of the core series. And like other games based in Ivalice, specifically Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, 12’s plot often feels like a middle chapter of a grander tale yet to be told. It’s so rich in backstory that keeping track of names and places during the initial hours can feel overwhelming, though the further you play, the easier it is to get a handle of the intricacies of the lore. What you really need to know at the start is two small kingdoms, Dalmasca and Nabradia, are caught in the crossfire of two larger warring empires, Rozarria and Archadia. Of the countless individuals affected by this period of upheaval, six characters–all of whom come from vastly different backgrounds– form your party, uniting for a common cause to de-escalate this continent-wide conflict.

Perpetuating this middle episode vibe are the playable characters themselves, who have been appropriately compared to the cast of Star Wars: A New Hope. As examples, Ashe is the captured princess and Basch is the former general in hiding. Balthier is the self-serving pirate with a price on his head and his partner, Fran, has been described as Sexy Chewbacca. Their intertwined backstories and resulting encounters allow for chemistry and conflict as the often engaging narrative unfolds.

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Reinforcing Final Fantasy 12’s timelessness, The Zodiac Age brings in an enhanced Gambit battle system, which itself felt ahead of its time upon its first release. By stringing together a prioritized series of if/then commands for each character, battles unfold with a semi-automated flow where you can vanquish beasts without pressing a button for minutes on end. The immensely user friendly interface fittingly looks and feels like a Fisher-Price styled introduction to programming, where each player-chosen behavior is simply assigned a specific target, whether it be an ally, themselves, or a single enemy.

No Caption Provided Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10 One would think that the hands-free aspects of The Gambit System would deprive you of agency and engagement but it in fact creates the opposite result. Since you’re still responsible for every character’s actions, the thrill of seeing your handiwork unfold and emerging victorious never gets old. It allows for experimentation and risk-taking but The Gambit System truly shines when you stick to sensible and tried-and-true RPG battle tactics. Remember all those times you died in battle because you ignored a status ailment and thought you could get one last attack in instead? This system removes all manner of impulsiveness and for many, offers a glimpse of the RPG combatant one aspires to be, free of impetuous behaviors.

You don’t get your hands on this system in earnest until three hours in, which is one hour too many. Yet this onboarding period is notably improved over the original game thanks to the option to double or even quadruple the speed of play. This is just one of the many new features that makes The Zodiac Age ever more engrossing. In a game that features respawning enemies, every hostile area becomes more inviting. You’re motivated by growing your party’s stats at an accelerated pace even after you’ve explored every corner and opened every treasure chest in a given region.

While its enhancements do not translate into a brand new game for existing fans, The Zodiac Age is nonetheless invigorating. For an experience that can last over a hundred hours, the subtle tweaks therein go a long way in showcasing Final Fantasy 12’s grand trek in a new light. Its epic, lore-abundant story and its time-tested Gambit System should also appeal to those who missed out on the mainline series’ trip to Ivalice the first time around. And thanks in part to the new audio and speed options, The Zodiac Age is an ideal definitive edition: one that improves the game over its original version across the board.

Ever Oasis 3DS Review

Ever Oasis Review

Ever Oasis is a cute hybrid RPG that attempts to mix Animal Crossing-like town building with an adventure along the lines of The Legend of Zelda. Its compound formula is appealing on paper, but for a while, Ever Oasis falls short of its potential. Its simplistic narrative, cutesy visuals, and basic town-building mechanics test your patience in the beginning. But when its principal ideas are given a chance to take root, it sprouts into a surprisingly absorbing adventure that consistently rewards your time and efforts.

Set in a hostile desert world, you play as a young creature called a Seedling, who with the help of a water spirit, is capable of creating a magical safe haven known as an Oasis. Your adventure begins in ruin as your brother’s Oasis is attacked by Chaos, an evil force that seeks to devastate and corrupt all living things. It lays waste to the area and its inhabitants, but before Chaos can harm you, your brother teleports you to safety in the hopes that you may survive to create a new Oasis and gather up the strength to defeat Chaos.

Ever Oasis’ main story never stretches too far outside its basic premise, rarely expanding upon its rudimentary good-versus-evil dynamic. Despite the stakes set by its grim introduction, it predominantly maintains a happy-go-lucky attitude in the face of conflict, and you seldom get a sense of how Chaos has gripped the land or its people. There are a couple moments where it’s expanded upon, like the plight of the Lagora, a race of squirrel-cats who once cultivated a lush forest to produce water, only for it to be consumed by Chaos. Details like this offer valuable insight into the game’s world, but they’re too few and far between.

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It’s satisfying to build up your Oasis and see it steadily grow more vibrant and lush.

As a result, it isn’t the narrative that pulls you into Ever Oasis. Rather, it’s the slow process of building up your personal desert refuge that proves to be the game’s most rewarding element. You expand your Oasis by convincing travelers to live there. This can be done by fulfilling their requests, which typically range from fetch quests to escort missions. Successfully convincing travelers to become residents of your Oasis feeds into Bloom Booths, which are shops they can run that sell specific wares, such as juice, books, or fabric. Once a booth is built, you supply it with items the owner needs to stock their goods. This in turn attracts visitors who come to your Oasis to shop, racking up money for you to purchase seeds to grow crops, materials for equipment synthesis, or additional Bloom Booths. It takes time to learn these tenets, mostly due to the game’s slow and incessant tutorials, but once you’re given the reins, the loop is quickly rewarding. The wider variety of Bloom Booths your Oasis contains, the more people that come to visit; and the more people that live in your Oasis, the higher its level, thus increasing its size and real-estate space. Your thoughts are always locked on what you can do to maximize your profits and upgrade your Oasis, or how you can entice a specific traveler into visiting. There’s great joy in sorting through and accomplishing the various odd jobs you’re given, but what’s most fulfilling is seeing your Oasis take on new life as it levels up, sprouting lush greenery, paving wider roads, and erecting stone monuments.

While you spend much of your time developing your Oasis, there are occasions when you must venture into the game’s overworld–often to seek out residents or explore nearby caves for materials. Most of the game’s locales are wide-open desert landscapes, which sounds dull aesthetically but is actually pleasing to the eye thanks to the way the game’s day/night cycle changes the world’s color palette. The environments are not as dense as they could be, sometimes coming across as small sandboxes more so than lived-in spaces, but they sport a sense of interconnectedness that remains satisfying to explore.

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The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat.

In your trek across the game’s arid deserts, you often fight creatures tainted by Chaos’ presence. Like much of Ever Oasis, combat is rudimentary and tedious at first, boiling down to dodging an attack at the right moment and counterattacking accordingly. But as you obtain more advanced maneuvers and abilities, fights start to become more exciting affairs, especially when you form a party of three of your Oasis’ most formidable residents to accompany you. The ability to customize a party offers a welcome dose of strategy to combat, as utilizing the unique strengths of various characters becomes paramount to your success in the late game’s more difficult fights. While combat can be fulfilling, inconsistent party AI frequently leads to moments of frustration. It’s common to see your companions running headfirst into a brutal attack, and other times skillfully dodging out of harm’s way. The issue is minor, but you’re liable to adopt the habit of bringing extra healing items to accommodate your allies’ sporadic incompetence.

A major highlight of the overworld is its dungeons. Each contains a varied mix of puzzles to solve and enemies to fight. The myriad puzzles you encounter are elaborate, requiring you to utilize the unique abilities of your party. Some characters can, for example, shapeshift. This particular ability comes in handy when you need one ally to become a ball and another to form a wall for the first character to ricochet off of. While none of the ordeals you face are particularly difficult, they’re diverse enough to keep you consistently engaged. However, an issue that detracts from the pacing of dungeons is the constant need to return to your Oasis to change your party members to overcome specific puzzles. Fast-travel alleviates this annoyance to some degree, but the number of times you’re forced to go back and forth breaks up the flow of dungeons, reducing the enjoyment of exploring and overcoming these trials.

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While Ever Oasis is rough in spots, it helps that the game maintains a consistent level of wonder, introducing new types of challenges in step with your acquisition of new tools and abilities. Small quality-of-life adjustments, such as the ability to send out resource-gathering parties and bulk Bloom Booth restocking, are introduced to alleviate the demands of your routine as the game’s scope increases and you’re forced to spend more time exploring. It understands your struggles the moment you experience them, smartly streamlining your ability to accomplish tasks before they can become problematic. But building up your Oasis demands patience, and that can be the most challenging aspect of all. While it’s easy to initially write off the game based on its rudimentary narrative and overtly vibrant visuals, what becomes compelling as you play more is the sense of ownership you start to feel for your Oasis and the bonds you create with your allies.

Ever Oasis’ tight blend of mechanics and activities are bound to keep you coming back for more well after completing it, if only to see what else you can do to develop your desert sanctuary. While the game’s story isn’t particularly moving, the consistent gratification of its incisive design makes it a satisfying adventure. Ever Oasis takes time to grow, but the return is well worth the wait.

Tekken 7 PC Reviews

Tekken 7 Reviews

The Tekken series has a long-standing reputation in arcades, but for many players it was the console ports that left a lasting impression. These versions often introduced offbeat, dramatic story campaigns, as well as more extensive additions such as delightfully odd beat-’em-up and sport modes. And in recent years, the goal of unlocking and customizing outfits for the game’s large cast rounded out the most rewarding objective of all: getting good. Tekken 7 keeps most of these traditions alive and once again delivers the tight, hard-hitting action for which the series is known. The game has some server-stability issues at launch, but it’s otherwise a great sequel that confidently claims its position among the best fighting games today.

Similar to other 3D Fighters like Dead or Alive and Virtua Fighter, Tekken 7 focuses on utilizing space and lateral movement during combat. By and large this is a game of inches; most fighters punch, kick, and grapple up close to one another and there’s little margin for error. A moment of indecision or a sloppy move against a more skilled player can lead to a string of pummeling strikes and a hasty defeat, courtesy of the game’s long combo strings. Though Tekken 7 can be punishing, its fighting system isn’t as difficult to get into as it lets on. With an intuitive control scheme that assigns one button to each limb, you can learn how to attack and retaliate, step by step. The long-term trick is putting in the time to dissect and memorize your favorite character’s moveset to hone your reflexes and diversify your tactics.

The biggest complaint you can lob at Tekken 7 is that it doesn’t do a good job of explaining the intricacies of its mechanics, let alone how you should approach learning your character of choice. The move lists for each character often hover around 100 entries, serving as a mix of one-off special attacks and combos. Save for a few icons–which represent attack properties that the game also fails to thoroughly explain–lists are disorganized, with no categories or hierarchy to speak of. The best you can do is hop into training mode and shift from one move to the next. Thankfully, you can scroll through attack hints live, during practice, and without repeatedly entering menus.

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None of this is to say that Tekken 7 is too deep, which would be a ridiculous complaint–the depth of its roster and fighting styles is to your benefit. The point is that new players will have very little help learning anything beyond the basics once they jump into battle. This is disappointing, given that other fighting games have demonstrated that the best way to retain new players is by giving them a fighting chance, and the lack of instruction is odd for Tekken, which only one game prior (Tekken Tag Tournament 2) gave players Fight Lab mode–a place to study how mechanics and different types of attacks can dictate the flow of a match.

But if this isn’t your first King of Iron Fist tournament and you’ve kept up with Tekken over its more than 20-year tenure, you’ll find that Tekken 7 delivers the same great combat you know and love with a hefty batch of new characters–and a few new mechanics. The game includes notable new supermoves that can be triggered when a character’s health is dangerously low, which is also the right time to unleash a rage drive–a powered-up standard combo attack. The most important new addition is the power crush attack attribute: Relevant attacks can absorb incoming hits mid-animation, allowing you to risk a little health to increase your chances of landing a critical blow, which injects Tekken’s otherwise familiar fights with a renewed element of surprise.

With more than 30 playable characters, Tekken 7 offers plenty of fighters and opponents to study. Impressively, nearly a quarter of the roster is brand new. The most conspicuous Tekken freshman must be Akuma, the red-haired bad guy of Street Fighter fame. The introduction of fireballs and hurricane kicks might seem like an odd fit for Tekken, but they don’t feel overpowered in light of the fact that every character comes with their own advantages. And when it comes to facing down Akuma’s projectiles specifically, they can be easily sidestepped given the game’s 3D movement. Street Fighter fans will appreciate how easy it is to fight as Akuma, since many of his traditional moves and inputs are present and accounted for. Even Street Fighter’s meter-based mechanics have been carried over for his Tekken debut.

Interestingly, Akuma also plays a pivotal role in the main story mode. Hailed as the final chapter in the series’ long-running story of martial-arts papa Heihachi Mishima and his quarrelling family, Tekken 7’s narrative will delight Tekken veterans, especially when the oft-referenced-but-never-before-seen Kazumi Mishima breaks onto the stage. The only major downfall here is the robotic and stale narrator, a reporter covering the Mishima family. His delivery is too shallow to take seriously and not witty enough to make his deadpan cadance funny. You may also notice that some fights seem arbitrarily difficult along the way, but thanks to the gift of shortcut commands for powerful attacks–a system referred to as Story Assist–they’re more of a temporary annoyance than a barrier.

Beyond the two to three hours spent on the main story, every character not present therein gets their own brief chapter, limited to a short text intro, a single fight, and a unique ending cutscene. Not all are created equal, but there are gems to find that are purposefully awkward and light-hearted–the perfect complement to Tekken’s pervasive melodrama. Fans of the alien samurai Yoshimitsu will, for example, appreciate how he’s initially humanized and made vulnerable, only to be subsequently kneed in the groin by the object of his affection.

Tekken 7 lives up to the series’ penchant for tongue-in-cheek shenanigans and generously gives you access to the series’ entire back catalog of cutscenes, from the very first Tekken’s low-res clips all the way to background movies made specifically for Japanese pachinko machines. There’s a lot of Tekken history to unlock, and the collection is a wonderful trip down memory lane.

Using Fight Money earned by playing the game’s various modes you can purchase both cutscenes and cosmetic items for characters. Tekken 7 offers a lot of basic variations of hairstyles or glasses to buy, and an equal amount of stranger outfits and accessories–including neon butterfly wings, a floating clownfish companion, and automatic rifles, to name a few. While you certainly don’t need to dress fighters up in ridiculous outfits, doing so will give you a new appreciation for how comfortable Tekken 7 is in its own skin. It’s a hardcore, demanding fighting game, but it’s also happy to be the butt of its own jokes.

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Items–so-called “treasure”–can also be unlocked rather than purchased within the Treasure Battle mode, which puts you in a series of fights with increasing rewards and challenges. There’s also training mode and an arcade mode where you can practice your moves, but Treasure Battle is easily the most attractive way to spend your off-time in Tekken 7. If you’re going to practice before hopping online to fight, you might as well have something to show for it.

A few days after launch, Tekken 7’s online modes are experiencing a few issues across all platforms, and while these are mostly isolated to ranked matches, it’s not uncommon to lose connections in casual matches, either. It’s an issue that publisher Bandai Namco is aware of and plans to patch, but at the moment, it’s not always easy to get into a match unless you’re willing to hammer attempts for minutes on end. When you’re eventually able to get into a match, pray that it’s over a better-than-average connection; Tekken 7 becomes a slide show online under lesser conditions.

Notwithstanding that ranked matches are currently a crapshoot, Tekken 7 remains an easy game to recommend. Its diverse roster is packed with a wide range of personalities and fighting styles, bolstered by a raucous attitude that begs to be taken seriously while simultaneously mocking its more peculiar whims in the process. Tekken fans will find their next favorite game–one that’s the product of decade’s worth of refinement. And while some of this depth will be lost or out of reach for newcomers, there’s enough fun to be had outside of hardcore competition to keep players from all walks of gaming thoroughly entertained.

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Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy for PS4 Review

When Crash Bandicoot hit the scene in the ’90s, it didn’t take long for him to become the de facto PlayStation mascot. He didn’t reach the same level of popularity as Mario or Sonic, but the original Crash games were charming platformers that resonated with audiences thanks to expressive characters and diverse environments. And unlike his peers, Crash was born in 3D; Mario and Sonic merely adopted it.

With the arrival of the N. Sane Trilogy collection, we now have the chance to revisit the first three Crash games in style, and while they look better than ever, they’re otherwise direct replicas of the original games. Developed by Vicarious Visions, the N. Sane Trilogy collection features remastered versions of Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Gone are the rudimentary character models in favor of more realistic-looking creatures and environments, and a new lighting system bakes a measure of realism into the otherwise cartoonish world, giving the games a quality similar to 3D cartoons from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.

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While it’s easy to look at these games and appreciate the care that’s gone into their presentation, actually playing them stirs up conflicting emotions. There’s no way around it: they remain dated despite their fresh look. Enemies rarely react to you, preferring instead to follow pre-determined paths and animation loops. And many obstacles are needlessly discouraging; Razor-thin tolerances for success and one-hit deaths make for a frustrating pairing. You can control Crash using an analog stick now, but smoother pivots and jumps don’t alleviate the otherwise stiff gameplay lurking behind Crash’s goofy exterior.

Not all levels are out to get you, however, and for the most part the N. Sane Trilogy offers a modest challenge that’s perfectly suited for casual enjoyment. The ease at which you can fly through some stages allows you to experience a wide range of scenarios as well: you will carefully navigate the electrified waters of an eel infested sewer one minute and ride on the back of a tiger through a gauntlet of angry locals atop the Great Wall of China the next. There are also a handful of levels that allow you to reenact the famous boulder sequence from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, though you may be running from a massive polar bear instead of a boulder depending on the particular game in question.

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This is all to say that Crash is what it’s always been: a charming collection of platforming challenges that shift gears from one stage to the next. By putting three games next to each other, the N. Sane Trilogy overflows with nostalgia. The warm and fuzzy feeling you get from seeing familiar Crash levels presented in a way that mirrors what you held in your imagination is undeniable. But so too is the reality that Crash games aren’t timeless. No amount of lighting or funny animations can make up for the rudimentary 3D platforming on display. You could even say that the look of these games belies their true nature.

The culprit behind Crash’s dated feel is the passage of time. Vicarious Visions, for its part, succeeded in revitalizing Crash from an artistic perspective while preserving the charm that made him appealing when he first showed up, but years have passed since the original PlayStation was relevant, and we are well past the formative years of 3D gaming. It’s easy to imagine how a dyed-in-the-wool Crash fan will fall in love all over again via the N. Sane Trilogy, but if you’re experiencing Crash for the first time–or the first time in a while–it might pain you to realize that Crash’s original adventures aren’t as inventive or surprising as they were 20 years ago.

Cosmic Star Heroine PS4 Review

Cosmic Star Heroine Review

Cosmic Star Heroine makes a great first impression. Its introductory hours are all synths and saxes, flashy sci-fi espionage, and daring escapades lit by suffusions of neon and moonlight. There’s no mistaking it for some imported decades-old classic, but it still managed to give me flashbacks of loading up untranslated PC Engine games and gawking at the interstitial artwork.

Agent Alyssa L’Salle is a beret-wearing, bo-wielding covert ops specialist for the government who spends much of the game unraveling a large-scale conspiracy. Within minutes of being introduced, she’s defusing bombs, hacking computers, and getting into harrowing fights with flying drones while clambering up the side of a skyscraper. She’s almost cartoonishly cool and competent, as are her companions. It may seem a little over the top at first glance, but it’s part of what cements the game’s vibe as a pulpy, joyously unfettered throwback. Pop stars, tech experts, monk-like gunslingers, and literal dancing machines–Cosmic Star Heroine is far from shy about letting its cast shine every bit as brightly as its lead.

The game is also a little more than standard turn-based RPG fare. Each character’s abilities can only be used once, with the exception of a handful. While the majority can be restored by using a character’s recharging/guard move, certain powerful abilities, as well as equipped items, can only be used once per battle.

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Added to this are Style and Hyper Points. Style accumulates over time and offers a boost to allies and enemies alike, so the longer a battle takes, the more devastating each strike becomes. Hyper Points, meanwhile, are accumulated with each turn and are represented as little pips under a character’s health bar. Fill in the requisite number of pips and the character unlocks the damage-doubling Hyper Mode for their turn.

That’s a lot to take in at first, but the end result is that combat has an extra layer of strategy beyond what you might initially expect. If an enemy is weak to water, for instance, there’s a massive advantage to saving one of Alyssa’s water abilities until she’s in Hyper Mode to get the most out of it, especially if a few turns have already passed and she’s had a chance to accumulate some Style as well.

In general, this system encourages good habits and thoughtful fighting. This is especially true in Hyper Mode, which encourages you to be a lot more diligent about considering your entire repertoire of moves and making big, flashy strikes really count. At lower difficulty levels, these mechanics have little chance to shine, but since the difficulty can be adjusted at any point in the game, it’s easy to experiment and find the exact level of challenge that suits your play style.

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No matter what difficulty is selected, Cosmic Star Heroine clearly doesn’t want to be a grind. Alyssa moves from dystopian city to alien planet to swanky mob banquet with plenty of fighting in between–but plenty of direction and purpose, too. The handful of alternate paths, hidden areas, and optional bosses seldom take her too far from the action or distract too much from the core objective, and they typically yield high-quality gear for her or her companions.

As a result, you never feel like you’re dragging your heels in any one location for long–but it also makes the individual events feel oddly abbreviated at times. Plots sometimes pivot and settings shift before you get a good sense of either. If the game dealt purely in tropes, this wouldn’t matter, but Cosmic Star Heroine presents its own individual world, its own uniquely interesting characters, and its own blend of technology and the supernatural–and then provides you with almost no space to acclimate to any of it. Fast-paced action and intrigue can and should still allow for moments of downtime, flavor, or world-building. Even within the confines of short scenes, moments that could use a little time to breathe are awkwardly clipped. Hacking is instantaneous, as is subway transportation. These just happen, immediately and without fanfare–at its worst, it can feel like watching a movie at 1.5 times the normal speed.

This is true even when it comes to the writing, which usually strikes a decent balance with its cheesiness. But every now and then Cosmic Star Heroine offers up a joke dampened by its own preemptive flop sweat. The style of its tone-setting minimalistic animated cutscenes is another case of the usually great being undermined by the occasionally awkward. Three-dimensional rendered models of ships and structures are sometimes slipped in alongside the hand-drawn elements, which has the effect of cheapening and fracturing an otherwise cohesive visual style.

You will also find that Cosmic Star Heroine is peppered with slightly pettier annoyances as well. The biggest of these is the fact that there’s no option to load the game from the system menu, so any time you want to test a different strategy or replay a section on a different difficulty setting, you have to close and restart the game. And strangely, some boss fights instantly resolve themselves under certain difficulty settings, but not always. Sometimes, one or two of the enemies would simply flee and reduce the opposing team’s numbers, and sometimes a boss would simply concede before even a single turn passed.

The dialogue trigger also seems to be incredibly sensitive, so even if you take extra care to press the button as lightly as possible, you may end up trapped in a loop of the same few lines from an NPC, unintentionally triggering the same text three or four times before breaking loose–an unfortunate and regular occurrence.

With all of that said, Cosmic Star Heroine is still an enjoyable sci-fi RPG with a classical spirit. It’s shameless in its celebration of its inspirations, and the soundtrack goes a long way to sell every moment. Though it has more than its fair share of flaws, none of that stops this game from being exactly what it sets out to be.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Reviews For 3DS

Fire Emblem is a series with a storied history and has transformed dramatically over its nearly 25-year existence. Fire Emblem Echoes, a remake of a very early game in the series–Fire Emblem Gaiden–remains a departure of sorts from what most veteran players might expect. Rather than emphasizing character relationships and story dialogue, Fire Emblem Echoes puts its focus on long- and short-term strategy and strength-building. The end result is a fresh take on Fire Emblem’s strategy-RPG formula, and one that ranks among the best of the 3DS library.

Echoes follows the dual leads of Alm and Celica, a pair of youths that bear a strange crest upon their hands. They bond together as children in a tiny farming village, only to be torn apart by a sudden dramatic event. Many years after the fact, you’re in control of both characters–and their respective armies–in search of a reunion amongst a conflict-ridden yarn spun of large-scale wars, hidden pasts, and shocking truths.

While the story is classic Fire Emblem fare, the emphasis here is centered firmly on the saga of Alm and Celica, with only a few brief interludes that shift focus to other army members. The characters you welcome into your ranks and interact with are a charming and likable bunch with fun, well-written dialogue. Almost all in-game character text is voiced as well, which adds appreciable personality. Players more accustomed to recent Fire Emblem games like Awakening and Fates, however, may feel a bit disappointed in the lack of side character interactions. You don’t “pair off” characters in Echoes as you would in those games–while character-to-character support conversations do still exist here, they’re much shorter and happen strictly during combat. While this may be a disappointment to some, overall, it helps cement the story focus on the two leads and the various warring factions of FE Echoes’ world.

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While most of Echoes takes place on grid-based, turn-driven battlefields, you’ll also spend a lot of time navigating an overworld map with two armies: one led by Alm and the other by Celica, each with a different group of soldiers under their lead. Interactions between the two sets of troops are limited, meaning you’ll have to manage resources, weaponry, and stat-building across two teams. The two take mostly separate paths in their respective campaigns, stopping at towns and dungeons to gather intel, find new recruits, take on side-quests, and discover hidden treasure. Explorable towns, castles, shrines, forts, and dungeons are unique to Echoes, and while interactions with most of areas are somewhat limited–basically restricted to examining environments with a cursor as you would in a point-and-click adventure game–dungeons offer a far more interesting twist for the series.

Dungeons are explored on foot from a third-person perspective. You scout for secret passages and smash pots and crates for loot while avoiding (or seeking out) battles against roaming enemies. Touching a foe takes you to a traditional FE battle, but once you’ve felled your opponents, it’s back to exploring. These areas serve as a great addition that offer variety beyond simply stringing a series of battles together while still keeping the narrative focus on the core story.

Echoes has some crucial differences from other Fire Emblem games that add interesting layers to army management and combat as well. Characters can only carry one item at a time, forcing you to carefully consider if a special weapon, a restorative item, or armaments like a shield or ring would be ideal. Weapon degradation isn’t an issue (similar to Fates), and magic is learned through leveling rather than buying tomes–and uses character HP to cast, making high-powered spells a potentially risky proposition.

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These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that’s both distinct and refreshing.

Combat skills are learned by keeping specific items equipped in battle for long periods of time and are tied to individual pieces of gear, meaning you can’t just learn a skill from a specific shield, then equip a sword and keep using the skill. Stamina wears down as characters fight and take damage, degrading their stats and combat capabilities unless they replenish them with food, medicine, or offerings to the goddess Mila. Finally, the rock-paper-scissors style weapon triangle of modern FE games is gone entirely–swords can now clash with spears on equal footing.

These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that’s both distinct and refreshing. You can’t simply go in with strategies you may have devised in other Fire Emblem titles and expect them to work here; you’ll need to really stop and think about weapon distribution and upgrades, consider how to effectively use certain classes, when to take time with optional fights to build additional character levels, and so on.

The game’s difficulty is high overall, which makes conquering the toughest battles relatively unscathed feel like a real accomplishment. While the difficulty level makes formulating a sound strategy highly rewarding, it can also lead to some cases where you might feel stuck unless you grind out a few more levels or backtrack to the shrine to change classes, especially if you’re playing with permadeath on. But it always feels worth it; when you face a huge armada on a molten lava-covered battlefield, enduring assaults from constantly respawning foes while trying to keep your army’s stamina and health above critical levels, and you somehow manage to pull off a victory with a lucky arrow planted in a wizard’s cranium, pride and elation come in equal measure.

Helping you to secure those feelings is a brilliant new addition to gameplay called Mila’s Turnwheel. Each battle grants you a limited number of uses of the Turnwheel, which effectively acts as a rewind button. Missed several attacks in a row? You can opt to spin back time to a few attacks earlier and attempt them all again, hopefully with better luck. Realize that your brilliant “divide and conquer” strategy is actually going to leave your best soldiers dead? Go back several turns and take a totally new approach–you can rewind time as much or as little as you’d like, provided you still have enough cogs in reserve for that battle. This wonderful system allows players to take back critical combat mistakes without having to reset a long and arduous battle and is a tremendous boon whether you are playing with or without permadeath enabled. Once you run out of cogs, though, you’ll have to restart the level to take back mistakes, adding yet another nice layer of strategy–is it really worth a cog to reroll for a critical hit, or should you save it for when you plan your final assault on the tough-as-nails enemy commander? Only you can make the call.

Fire Emblem Echoes is a fantastic remake and a striking departure from modern Fire Emblem staples. What it lacks in interpersonal character relationships and user-controlled “shipping,” it makes up for in meaty, challenging strategy gameplay, engaging exploration sequences, and a tighter overall narrative. Taken both on its own and as part of the larger Fire Emblem franchise, Echoes’s unique elements help it stand out from its contemporaries. If you feel like you’re up to a lengthy, engaging challenge, then Echoes will satisfy in spades.

Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World Review For 3DS

Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World Review

When Yoshi’s Woolly World came out on Wii U in 2015, its well-hidden collectibles seemed at odds with its often breezy platforming–most of the challenge was in finding its secrets, so opting to forgo them made some stages too basic. Updated for 3DS, the leisurely pace of Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World feels right at home on a handheld. It’s the superior of the two versions and still works best when you’re scavenging for collectibles, though it also has the same balance pitfalls.

Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World includes all 48 stages from the Wii U version and adds extras, including special Poochy levels and an updated version of the original’s easier Mellow Mode. The standard levels still play well, and the lack of a level timer or lives to lose makes more sense on 3DS, where stop-and-start use is more common. Effortlessly (and adorably) hopping through a single level when you only have a few minutes to spare is a little more satisfying than running through several at a time, and of course, stopping to track down even the most hidden of items when you have more time to spare is still just as rewarding.

Though some of the platforming may seem basic for veterans, there are levels that really stand out, like an early Egypt-themed level that expands puzzle-solving beyond collectibles and into the platforming. But Woolly World also has its fair share of levels that don’t require quick thinking or much work at all.

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Woolly World isn’t boring, though, thanks to its relaxed pace and charm. It’s a good source of laid-back fun in the midst of intense stress, and its lovingly executed yarn theme is adorable. There’s something delightful about Yarn Yoshi eating a yarn enemy and turning it into a yarn projectile–which would normally not be a particularly pleasant idea–or being able to gobble up yarn fire and repurpose it. Even though quite a few levels are a breeze, there’s at least something cute to zero in on.

Many Nintendo games strive for accessibility–providing challenges that the player can opt into, choosing just how difficult or deep they want the experience to be. Woolly World does that to an extent, but there’s often a noticeable disparity between casually running through a level and aiming for completion. There’s not really a middle lane of difficulty for more experienced players who want a challenge without having to seek out the most well-hidden items. Some of that is remedied by the move to 3DS, and some of it is made better by an expanded version of the original’s optional Mellow Mode.

Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World feels right at home on a handheld. It’s the superior of the two versions and still works best when you’re scavenging for collectibles.

Despite the name, Mellow Mode doesn’t necessarily make Woolly World unbearably easy–though it does keep it accessible for younger or more inexperienced players. Like in the original, switching to Mellow Mode gives Yoshi wings that allow you to float indefinitely, which of course makes it easier to survive (though it’s not guaranteed). On 3DS, Mellow Mode also comes with a few Poochy pups to help sniff out secrets. It essentially bridges the difficulty gap, making platforming and collecting more harmonious. And, since it can be switched on and off in the middle of a level, you can use it sparingly if you’re looking for just a little bit of an edge.

And you shouldn’t rely on Poochy too much, because Woolly World really wouldn’t be worth playing without the fun of searching for all its collectibles. There are five flowers and five spools of yarn on each level, and some are almost cruelly hidden. If you’re dedicated, you could potentially spend a lot more time in Yoshi’s yarn world, taking half an hour even on earlier levels to find everything. Getting them all unlocks much harder levels, as well as some adorable Yoshi skins–and it’s rewarding to figure out the tricks and maneuvers you need to find them.

For faster-paced platforming, Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World has a new addition starring its namesake. It’s an endless runner-style set of bonus levels, and while not punishing, mastering the timing of jumps and Poochy’s signature slide is a different kind of challenge. It’s a welcome change of pace and a valuable addition for the 3DS version, making up for the lack of multiplayer by providing a good single-player diversion.

That said, it’s not a reason to buy the 3DS version if you’ve already played the Wii U one, and the extras don’t really give it much of an edge when the best part of the experience was there all along.

Though the gulf between two very different difficulties is not fully fixed by its additions, from the updated Mellow Mode to the extra Poochy levels, Poochy and Yoshi’s Woolly World gives you what you put in–it can either be almost frustratingly hard for a determined collector or a good fit for someone who’s just looking for a fun, relaxing few hours of platforming.

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition Review

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition Review

If ever a game deserved a second chance, it’s Bulletstorm. Though the original debuted just six years ago, the game went largely unnoticed at the time. So now, Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition is bringing it back to life by revamping the visuals and adding new content.

On its face, Bulletstorm is an outrageously macho first-person shooter that careens through a gauntlet of linear corridors and over-the-top set pieces in a testosterone-induced frenzy. But beneath this bro-y veneer, it quietly shapeshifts into a clever, challenging puzzle game thanks to the addition of skillshots.

Rather than simply shooting everyone to death, Bulletstorm challenges you to off your enemies in increasingly imaginative and elaborate ways: kick them into fountains full of flesh-eating fish, lasso them into overgrown cacti, flatten them by bringing elevator cars down on their heads, and so on. There are well over 100 unique options in total, many of which indeed require serious skill to pull off.

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For your efforts, you’re rewarded with points–the more creative the kill, the higher the point value. These points can be redeemed for weapon and ability upgrades at pods that punctuate the game’s various sections, but the skillshots are plenty rewarding in and of themselves. Seeing the “new” tag pop up next to a skillshot name after something cool happens on screen evokes the same giddy excitement of nailing a “gap” in the old Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. There’s a sense of discovery and accomplishment that’s refreshed with every new skillshot you uncover.

Skilled players can even check the skillshot menu and deliberately attempt to tick every box on the list, a challenge that transforms the entire game. Enemies are no longer threats as much as they are opportunities–each one could be the canvas for another skillshot masterwork. It’s an incredibly novel and gratifying hook, one that fundamentally elevates the standard shooter formula to something transcendently arcadey.

And this is all in addition to the fact that Bulletstorm stands as a strong shooter even without its point system. The core aiming and movement feel tight, and added mechanics like the “instinct leash”–which allows crass hero Grayson Hunt to grab enemies across great distances and yank them in closer–along with the Titanfall-esque slide-and-shoot maneuver keep the action feeling fast and dynamic.

Bulletstorm’s campaign also enjoys excellent pacing and variety. Recalling the gloriously ridiculous guns of ’90s shooters like Quake and Turok, weapons range from relatively standard to utterly outlandish: you can fire spinning drill bits into your foes, chase them with manually-guided sniper bullets, or just vaporize them with a quad-barrel shotgun. Your arsenal gradually grows as you progress, ensuring there are always new skillshots to try.

You also encounter new enemy types as you barrel through the campaign–some charge at you wielding explosives, others evade your leash with unexpected agility, but all offer some slight variation that helps keep the action from feeling too predictable. And of course, with every new environment come new hazards; it’s always fun figuring out that yes, you can kick enemies into that nearby turbine/chasm/hotdog cart.

Some elements of Bulletstorm’s campaign do feel stale, however. You’ll periodically encounter quick-time events, scripted set pieces, and on-rails shooter sections, and while none of these moments are bad, per se, they are design hallmarks of a game some years out of date. The campaign’s final chapters also become a bit of a predictable slog, diminishing your ability to be creative by hurling more and more obstacles at you.

Even with these highs and lows, the campaign holds up well–after all, its inventive skillshot system is a timeless idea. The story, on the other hand, remains an acquired taste. The script–which was almost certainly written entirely in all-caps–contains torrents of gratuitous swearing and some of the most painfully sophomoric humor ever to appear in a game. You may think you have an unlimited tolerance for dick jokes, but the only way to truly be sure is to play Bulletstorm.

3217167-20170405124914_1A quick look at Full Clip Edition’s video options on PC.

What’s especially weird about all the cartoonish machismo is the fact that it comes wrapped in a relatively serious storyline about war crimes, personal responsibility, and moving beyond self-loathing in order to help those you care about. That juxtaposition is jarring, but in a weird way, it works. It’s a bit like The Fast and the Furious: if you’re willing to turn off your brain and accept the fact that you’ve signed up for a spectacularly stupid thrillride, you might just enjoy yourself (even if you cringe a few times along the way).

While the contents of the story and campaign have not changed since the original release, the multiplayer and visuals have both been updated. Even in 2011, Bulletstorm was a good-looking game awash in color, each area soaked in brilliant hues, perhaps as a reaction to Epic’s notoriously brown shooter, Gears of War. It’s no surprise, then, that Full Clip Edition also looks excellent.

Though it can’t compete with the splendor of current-gen titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, it by no means looks out of place on modern hardware. The colors are as vibrant as ever, textures appear crisp and detailed (until you zoom the camera all the way in on an object, at least), draw distances prove impressive, and the frame rate holds solid on both PC and PS4. I encountered a small handful of glitches–mainly dead bodies ragdolling through walls–but overall, this is a technically sound update. PS4 Pro and PC players can even enjoy the game in 4K.

The updates to multiplayer are less impressive. Full Clip Edition adds six brand new maps to the solo, score-driven Echoes mode and also includes the four additional Echoes maps, three cooperative Anarchy mode maps, and an objective-driven version of Echoes called Ultimate Echoes that were added as DLC following Bulletstorm’s original release.

Echoes mode in general isn’t all that exciting since each map is just an isolated snippet of the campaign–your score can earn you a spot on a leaderboard, but the gameplay, down the very last enemy, remains identical to how the section played out in the campaign. Consequently, the mode provides a convenient option for those who want a streamlined experience, but it doesn’t add much to the overall package. Full Clip Edition’s six new maps don’t change that.

The cooperative horde mode Anarchy is a far more engaging option, especially since each round forces you to exceed a preset score threshold. Often the only way to achieve the requisite score in later rounds is to successfully perform team-based skillshots, a mechanic that sets Bulletstorm’s horde mode apart from the rest of the…er, horde. Maps prove especially important in Anarchy since unique environmental hazards frequently provide the highest score boosts, so Full Clip’s inclusion of the old DLC maps was a smart move.

Finally, Full Clip adds two major pieces of fan service: first a “new game plus” option called Overkill Mode, which enables all weapons and skillshots from the beginning of the campaign. Annoyingly, you must beat the campaign before unlocking Overkill–a move that will surely irk returning fans looking to dive right in–but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless.

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Hail to the king, baby!

More interestingly, fans who preordered Full Clip Edition (or who shell out an additional five dollars) can play through the entire campaign as the king himself, Duke Nukem. In practice, Duke’s character model replaces Hunt’s in every cutscene and longtime Duke voice actor Jon St. John reworks many of the original lines to better suit his character.

But the rest of the content, including the other character’s reactions and responses, remains unchanged. Your AI companion Ishi even uses Hunt’s name on several occasions. It is, of course, kind of hilarious to see and hear Duke in this new context, but his presence doesn’t meaningfully impact the story, let alone the gameplay.

For longtime fans, Full Clip Edition doesn’t offer much to be excited about. Additions like Overkill Mode and the upgraded visuals are certainly welcome, but fundamentally, this is the same game they already played in 2011. That said, the experience absolutely holds up: the skillshot system remains wildly fun and inventive, the weapons are still a gruesome joy, and the writing…well, it’s as distinctive as ever. If you missed Bulletstorm when it originally released–and based on sales numbers, you probably did–now’s the time to treat yourself to a clever if cringe-worthy blockbuster.

Atlas Reactor Review For PC

“Checkmate,” I typed in chat, just as the my beefy warrior hero Titus slammed down his broadsword and killed the two shooters before him. Victory and game over.

But “checkmate” is an apt enough word to use when playing this game. Atlas Reactor’s cast might be filled with the likes of robo-puppies and gun-toting fishmen rather than sword-swingers or wooden pawns, but watching a match feels much like watching the ancient game of chess. It retains this feeling even with a host of influences–a bit of XCOM here, a dash of League of Legends there–and a multiplayer focus that pits two teams of four players against each other. It maintains a near-perfect balance of match length, tactics, replayability, and flow of action, and comes off as something unique and fresh.

It’s also turn-based, a design choice that initially comes off a poor bedfellow for its PvP emphasis. But the greatness of Atlas Reactor is that it works, in part because there’s little waiting involved. Every player gets only 20 seconds to plan and position their next moves over a gridded map, and every player does this planning phase at the same time. The action winds up right as those 20 seconds wind down, and the moves play out on the map down lanes and conveniently placed walls. And then, tick-tock, it’s time to start again, and this dance plays on for either 20 total turns or until one side kills five players. And as if to prove that Atlas Reactor seriously has a thing for the number 20, most matches last no more than that many minutes, which comes as a blessing when things aren’t going well.

Even with the decent tutorial, it’s daunting for the first few matches. Once it kicks off, the action unfolds in a series of phases, all of which you have to account for with a library of five abilities within the space of 20 seconds. First, there’s the Prep phase, which sees your hero lay down traps (or shout to weaken opponents, as my warrior Titus does). Right after that comes the Dash phase, which lets you dart out of the way if you’re worried another player is about to unleash a big attack. That’s followed by the Attack phase proper, where you fire rocket launchers, unleash huge mechanical choppers, or swing greatswords depending on the hero. After all that comes the Movement phase, which lets your hero move to a new area in preparation for a new attack. Adding to the mix is a wide range of options for taking cover, power-ups for damage and health, three single-use “catalysts” for healing and short teleports, and a fog of war mechanic that lets you hide from enemies on specific tiles.

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Spelled out like that, it sounds comically unwieldy for the time allotted, but it makes sense in action. At least one of those abilities is an ultimate that can’t be used unless you’ve amassed enough energy, and distance limitations often rule out certain abilities. At least half the time, I’d say, I’d locked in my moves before the 20-second timer even ran out.

Much as in chess, a big chunk of the fun comes from guessing how the next turn plays out. I might have Titus ready to charge at an enemy player with low health on the other side of the map, but if he or she dashes away, I could end up swatting at air when I arrive. Or maybe there’s a weakened enemy who could last a bit longer by picking up that nearby health pack, but I could thwart his plans by nabbing it first. Some of the best moments come down to skillful gambling, such as betting that a couple of enemy players will dash into the catastrophic area-of-effect attack I’m about to unleash.

Communication by voice or chat interface naturally makes all this easier, although I’ve been in plenty of winning matches where the only words I see typed are “lol”s when massive attacks miss. Atlas Reactor is nice enough to make this process easier by automatically hooking you up with a Discord channel before each match if you choose, and voice chat does much to get the most out of those 20 seconds.

Could the game offer a bit more variety? Certainly. As it stands, it doesn’t take long to learn the tricks and secrets each of the few maps present, which may be a tiny part of the reason why many random players don’t bother with voice chat. And it’s a world I’d like to see more of. There’s even a story of sorts with lively, humorous cutscenes that’s largely currently locked behind the multi-week “seasons,” which unlock collectibles like banners and emblems. This is a lively, cel-shaded universe that echoes The Fifth Element and any number of other cyberpunk settings while a catchy soundtrack thumps its beats in the background, and its cast of “freelancers” look as though they could rub shoulders with the cast of Overwatch and fit right in.

There are 21 freelancers, with Juno and her twin-cannon harness being the last added for launch after months of beta. More will no doubt fill the ranks eventually, but I already admire how much the experience changes and renews itself when going from my favorite Titus to Celeste (who can steal power-ups with grappling hooks) or the cutesy Quark, who smothers friends with heals but blasts the bad guys with gamma rays. Nor is it mindless shooting–tactics figure in heavily, such as the way one freelancer can bounce laser blasts off walls and shift-clicks allow for precise maneuvers around traps. Even the progression system doesn’t let things get out of hand, as it merely focuses on mods for your abilities and catalysts, with extra taunts and skins tossed in for fun.

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And since Atlas Reactor espouses a buy-to-play model, you merely have to pay $30, and all this is yours. (After all the 20s, I’m surprised it’s not $20.) It’s a nice break from the sometimes-oppressive free-to-play model that’s defined Trion Worlds’ games lately, although if you’re not ready to plunk down cash, you can use the Free Mode that switches out different heroes each week. Smartly, as with so many other things about this game, those heroes are randomized by account rather than game-wide so that you’re not always seeing the same five pop up in matches. And if you ever want to jump in ranked or custom matches and open more loot crates so that it feels like more than a largely functional trial, just pay the 30 bucks.

A lot of what gets passed off as “innovation” in games these days is really better described as the successful alchemy of numerous existing styles, but rarely does this practice produce the kind of gold we find in Atlas Reactor. Sure, it could use a few more maps (and more are on the way), and its learning curve is just steep enough that it’s briefly tough to see the fun on the other side, but it achieves its aims with style and flair.

Shovel Knight: Specter Of Torment Review

Shovel Knight is defined by its likeness to games from the era of 8-bit consoles. It takes inspiration from games like Mega Man and Ducktales not only in its pixel- and pitch-perfect audiovisual aesthetic, but also in its mechanics–Shovel Knight is a resolutely unforgiving 2D platformer. Peril is almost always present on screen–be it a bottomless pit or a tough enemy that can quickly whittle down your health–making this a game that demands your undivided attention as much as it does your quick reflexes. Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to Shovel Knight, a prequel that’s available as a standalone campaign on Nintendo Switch or a free update to those who already own the main game, and it follows the titular Specter Knight as he sets out to gather an army for the series’ primary antagonist, The Enchantress.

Specter Knight’s default skillset is dramatically more varied than that of Shovel Knight, with a focus on the lightness and dexterity of his character, as opposed to Shovel Knight’s heavier, brute-force feel. Specter Knight has an innate ability to wall jump, mount ledges, and vertically scale walls for a short time. Most significantly, Specter has the ability to perform a mid-air scythe dash on enemies and certain environmental objects, an attack which sends him flying at an angle and is used for traversal as much as it is for offence.

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The execution of these moves is simple, requiring nothing more than a timely press of the attack or jump buttons, and together they make Specter feel like a powerfully agile character who is a joy to control. But with these abilities come more difficult challenges in Specter of Torment’s new platforming levels. Unlike Shovel Knight, whose stages gradually grew in difficulty and were gated in an overworld map style reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, Specter of Torment presents you with the full selection of what I personally found to be equally-challenging stages and their accompanying boss fights, available to be tackled in any order in a structure more reminiscent of the Mega Man series.

Bottomless pits and other instant-death hazards feel more abundant in Specter of Torment, and proceeding forward almost always involves more than just careful jumping. Stages often require you to chain a series of movements together in order to keep Specter Knight airborne for extended periods of time over treacherous ground, and one fumbled execution could mean a complete do-over. You might climb the side of a wall to get you just enough height to wall-jump towards a series of swinging chandeliers, letting you scythe-dash into each one and eventually fling yourself across the room to mantle an opposing wall. Managing to reach a checkpoint after perfectly overcoming a series of obstacles without fumbles or fatalities is always a thrilling relief. The dexterous demands of performing these moves means that progress always feels satisfying and well-earned, even when it feels second-nature.

Each themed stage adds its own unique mechanical twists to the game’s platforming which need to be internalised too. There are some incredibly memorable ones such as scythe surfing, which sees Specter Knight ride his scythe like a skateboard and grind rails to move through stages at speed–but otherwise the majority will be familiar to those who have played the main Shovel Knight game, albeit with minor twists to better accommodate Specter’s abilities. This is unsurprising, given the game’s prequel nature and the appearance of many of the same characters and worlds, but the new level designs still feel more demanding.

Specter of Torment also features many of the same formidable level bosses as the original Shovel Knight, and although many of the battles with them seem a bit too similar to their previous appearances, some are altered significantly to make the most of Specter’s mobility, and can come as an enjoyable surprise to those familiar. The fight with Propeller Knight, for example, no longer takes place on a static platform, but in the midst of many tiny, cascading airships, requiring you to continually scramble upwards while dodging attacks.

The completion of each level allows you to purchase additional Curios, Specter of Torment’s unique version of Shovel Knight’s Relics, which allow for the use of special abilities at the cost of a consumable meter. Each Curio has its own distinct use to aid in the dispatching of enemies or to ease the burden of traversal. For example, the Hover Plume gives Specter Knight the ability to float in mid-air for a short duration, and Judgement Rush allows Specter to ignore pits and walls and teleport directly to an enemy. Each tool adds an interesting new facet to the way you can approach Specter of Torment’s levels, but the entirety of the game can be completed without using them. I found that relying on Curios diminished the sense of satisfaction that came from overcoming difficult obstacles using only Specter Knight’s base skillset, and tended to avoid them.

Much of what made the original Shovel Knight a success can also be found in Specter Knight. Level designs also cleverly act as intuitive tutorials, demonstrating the possibilities and limits of what you can and can’t do in particular stages without explicit explanation. Shovel Knight’s penchant for rewarding exploration is also still present. Secret paths and areas are strewn throughout the game’s stages and hub world. Some are obvious, but some can come as a small surprise to those who are willing to push the limits of the traversal abilities. The game’s checkpoint system–which allows you to actually destroy a checkpoint for monetary reward at the risk of having to re-traverse more of the level upon death–is still a clever mechanic. And Shovel Knight’s sense of humor and charm still manage to shine through, despite Specter of Torment’s more melancholic tone. Small moments like watching a reunited skeleton couple perform a waltz, playing with a cat, or simply enjoying the lighthearted dialog of NPCs provide nice moments of levity.

While it only took us a few hours in total to complete the game’s story mode, Specter of Torment felt well-paced and never unnecessarily short. The density of challenge contained within its individual stages meant that I was always entirely concentrated on the next obstacle, but Specter of Torment attempts to pace its demands on your mental state every few levels with short, interactive narrative interludes that serve as an enjoyable prequel to this prequel campaign. Specter of Torment also offers a new game plus option upon completion with a slightly more demanding health mechanic, and also offers a challenge mode which presents a variety of platforming and boss fight trials under strict restraints.

Specter of Torment is a finely-crafted 2D platformer that is satisfying in all respects. Simply controlling Specter Knight–flying through the air and slicing through enemies–is a joy in itself, and being able to push your ability to control these skills in overcoming the game’s cleverly-designed and challenging levels is always an exhilarating feeling. Specter of Torment is a focussed, polished, and satisfyingly challenging game that’s well worth experiencing whether or not you’ve had the pleasure of playing Shovel Knight.